Updated at 2:45 p.m. ET
Hurricane Sally has weakened a bit, but the storm brings a perilous threat of floods to areas along the northern Gulf Coast, forecasters say. The hurricane is crawling along at just 2 mph, giving its heavy rains even more potential impact. A tornado watch has also been issued.
“Because of that slow movement, we’re going to see torrential rainfall, a dangerous amount of rainfall,” National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said in an online briefing Tuesday morning.
Many communities in Sally’s path will be drenched by 10 to 20 inches of rain, with some areas possibly seeing up to 30 inches.
“That’s just a history-making amount of rain,” Graham said.
Hurricane Sally has maximum sustained winds of 80 mph and is about 105 miles south of Mobile, Ala., which lies near the middle of its potential landfall zone, the NHC said in its 2 p.m. ET update.
Federal emergencies have been declared in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, with President Trump approving disaster requests from those states’ governors.
The center of the hurricane will get very close to southeastern Louisiana’s coast on Tuesday, but it’s expected to make make a sharp turn toward the north before making landfall in Mississippi or western Alabama on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, forecasters say.
A tropical storm warning for New Orleans was lifted Tuesday morning, providing relief in a city that is sheltering people who fled Hurricane Laura’s disastrous arrival in the Lake Charles area weeks ago.
Parts of the western Florida Panhandle and Alabama are now seeing tropical storm conditions, and the situation is expected to deteriorate. Those same areas are included in a tornado watch bulletin the National Weather Service issued Tuesday.
“Historic flooding is possible with extreme life-threatening flash flooding likely through Wednesday,” the hurricane center said.
Sally’s projected landfall has shifted consistently toward the east; the warning area now centers on the middle of Alabama’s Gulf Coast, extending from Biloxi, Miss., east past Pensacola. A large part of the coast is under a storm surge warning, from the New Orleans area to the western Florida Panhandle.
In Alabama, beaches have been ordered closed and residents are filling sandbags to protect from flooding, member station Alabama Public Radio reports.
“The current projections of this storm have most of our state in the path,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said Tuesday, adding that most of her state would likely be affected by the storm today and Wednesday.
Ivey on Monday urged residents and tourists along the Alabama coast to evacuate.
In Mississippi, mandatory evacuation orders have been issued for parts of Harrison and Hancock counties. But the state’s emergency agency also warns, “Shelters will operate at limited capacity because of COVID-19 guidelines.”
A voluntary evacuation order is also in effect for parts of Jackson County.
In Florida, Santa Rosa and Escambia counties are under voluntary evacuation orders. Strong winds have already forced several bridges to close in the Pensacola area, including Three Mile Bridge over Pensacola Bay.
In Louisiana, Sally’s eastward shift away from the state prompted at least two parishes – St. Charles and St. John the Baptist — to rescind their evacuation orders late Tuesday morning. But other areas with more exposure to the Gulf, such as St. Bernard Parish, are already coping with flooding that began on Monday.
The storm’s rain bands, combined with a storm surge of up to 7 feet, are expected to produce dangerous floods. Forecasters reduced their storm surge predictions late Tuesday morning, after earlier projecting a maximum surge of 9 or even 11 feet.
A storm surge warning, meaning there is a danger of life-threatening inundation by waters along the coast, is in effect from the mouth of the Mississippi River to the Okaloosa/Walton County line in Florida. The advisory also includes Mobile Bay.
Sally is currently moving northwest, but its path is expected to curl northward Tuesday and then a bit to the east. The timing of those maneuvers is uncertain, leaving its projected path in doubt as people rush to prepare for strong winds and high water.
After Sally makes landfall, flooding risks will spread farther inland, eventually reaching northern Georgia and the western sections of South Carolina and North Carolina later this week, forecasters say.
Sally rapidly strengthened on Monday, with sustained winds of 100 mph. That prompted forecasters to say it could have winds of up to 110 mph when it makes landfall. Those estimates have now been lowered, and the storm is expected to be a Category 1 storm when it finally arrives.
Sally is expected to remain at tropical storm strength or higher until the early hours of Thursday morning.