Hurricane Sally, a plodding storm with winds of 85 mph (137 kph), crept toward the northern Gulf Coast on Tuesday as forecasters warned of potentially deadly storm surges and flash floods with the heaviest downpours dumping nearly 2 feet (0.6 meters) of rain.
Forecasters said the storm’s drifting pace made it difficult to predict precisely where the storm’s eye would make landfall. But they kept nudging the predicted track eastward, easing fears in New Orleans, which was once in Sally’s crosshairs.
By late morning Tuesday, hurricane warnings stretched from east of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, to Navarre, Florida, and forecasters said Sally should reach land near the Alabama-Mississippi state line by late Tuesday or early Wednesday. Rainfall of up to 20 inches (50 centimeters) was forecast near the coast, with a chance the storm could also spawn tornadoes.
Stacy Stewart, a senior specialist with the National Hurricane Center, said Tuesday that people should continue to take the storm seriously since “devastating” rainfall is expected in large areas. People could drown in the flooding, he said.
“This is going to be historic flooding along with the historic rainfall,” Stewart said. “If people live near rivers, small streams and creeks, they need to evacuate and go somewhere else.”
Along the I-10 highway that runs parallel to the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida, rain was starting to intensify in places like Gautier and Pascagoula, Mississippi. Businesses along highway exits appeared to be largely closed. Pascagoula police tweeted video of rising seawater flowing across a coastal roadway.
In Gulfport, Mississippi, white plastic bags hung over some gas station pumps to signal they were out of fuel. Along a bayou that extended inland from the Gulf, three shrimp boats were tied up as shrimpers and others tried to protect their boats from waves and storm surge. Most boat slips at Gulfport’s marina were empty, and many businesses had metal storm shutters or plywood covering the windows.
In Alabama, officials closed the causeway to Dauphin Island and the commuter tunnel that runs beneath the Mobile River. An online video from Dauphin Island showed a few cars and SUVs stuck in a beachfront area, their tires sunk deep into wet sand.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey urged residents near Mobile Bay and low-lying areas near rivers to evacuate if conditions still permitted a safe escape. The National Hurricane Center predicted storm surge along Alabama’s coast, including Mobile Bay, could reach 7 feet (2.1 meters) above ground.
“This is not worth risking your life,” Ivey said during a news conference Tuesday.
The storm was moving at only 2 mph (4 kph) late Tuesday morning, centered about 110 miles (180 kilometers) south of Mobile, Alabama, and 55 miles (85 kilometers) east of the mouth of the Mississippi River. Hurricane-force winds stretched 45 miles (75 kilometers) from its center.
Forecasters expected Sally to move slowly northward Tuesday, with the storm’s center bypassing the coast of southeastern Louisiana. Forecasters said the storm should remain a Category 1 hurricane, with top winds of 85 mph (137 kph), until it comes ashore.
After making landfall, Sally was forecast to cause flash floods and minor to moderate river flooding across inland portions of Mississippi, Alabama, northern Georgia and the western Carolinas through the rest of the week.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared an emergency in the Panhandle’s westernmost counties, which were being pummeled by rain from Sally’s outer bands early Tuesday. The threat of heavy rain and storm surge was exacerbated by the storm’s slow movement.
President Donald Trump issued emergency declarations for parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama on Monday, and tweeted that residents should listen to state and local leaders.
It all seemed a distant threat Monday afternoon in Waveland, Mississippi, as a shirtless, barefooted Trevor Claunch, of nearby Bay St. Louis, got in some last-minute beach time. But there were signs of trouble coming. Gulf waters had already crept over swaths of sandy shore and infiltrated bike paths and parking lots.
“Without any rain, and it’s already all the way up — I honestly want to stick around and see where it goes,” said Claunch.
But he wasn’t taking any chances.
“We’re going to go inland,” he said.
Sally achieved hurricane strength Monday and quickly intensified to a Category 2 storm with 100 mph (161 kph) winds. Its maximum sustained winds dwindled to a Category 1 by early Tuesday, and forecasters did not predict further strengthening.
While the threat to Louisiana appeared to be easing, flood control authorities remained on guard, closing gates along networks of waterways that could overflow their banks from storm surge.
The southwestern part of the state was pummeled by Hurricane Laura on Aug. 27 and an estimated 2,000 evacuees from that storm were sheltered in New Orleans, mostly in hotels.
Monday marked only the second time on record, forecasters said, that five tropical cyclones swirled simultaneously in the Atlantic basin. The last time that happened was in 1971. None of the others were expected to threaten the U.S. this week, if at all. One was downgraded to a low pressure trough Monday evening.
The extraordinarily busy hurricane season — like the catastrophic wildfire season on the West Coast — has focused attention on the role of climate change.
Scientists say global warming is making the strongest of hurricanes, those with wind speeds of 110 mph or more, even stronger. Also, warmer air holds more moisture, making storms rainier, and rising seas from global warming make storm surges higher and more damaging.
In addition, scientists have been seeing tropical storms and hurricanes slow down once they hit the United States by about 17% since 1900, and that gives them the opportunity to unload more rain over one place, as 2017’s Hurricane Harvey did in Houston.