Floodwaters rushed through parts of Alabama and Florida on Wednesday, turning roads into rivers, submerging cars and sending several out-of-control construction barges into waters along the Florida Panhandle as Hurricane Sally dumped a torrent of rain.
The surging water reached higher than five feet in Pensacola, Fla., and slammed a barge into a section of the Pensacola Bay Bridge that was under construction, destroying part of it, Sheriff David Morgan of Escambia County said.
The Pensacola area has already seen more than two feet of rainfall from Sally, and meteorologists said that up to 35 inches of rain could fall in coastal communities.
Sally made landfall at around 5 a.m. Central time over Gulf Shores, Ala., as a Category 2 hurricane and eventually weakened to a tropical depression after it passed through the Florida Panhandle, but its deluge was not forecast to let up any time soon. As of 9:30 p.m. Central time, the center of the storm was in southeastern Alabama, with its heavy rain extending into western Georgia. It was continuing to crawl northeast at about 9 miles per hour.
“Catastrophic and life-threatening flooding occurring over portions of the Florida Panhandle and southern Alabama” the National Hurricane Center warned.
In and around Pensacola, several barges came loose and were floating out of control through the choppy waters, including one with a crane that was at one point heading toward the Escambia Bay Bridge. Sheriff Morgan said he had considered all kinds of ways to stop the barge as it neared the bridge, even getting permission to fire 40-millimeter grenades at it before determining that the extreme step would be too dangerous and likely would not work anyway. Luckily, he said, the barge ran ashore and never reached the bridge.
With water and downed trees making roads impassible, and with still strong winds, residents were told it could be hours before emergency services were dispatched in force. At least 377 people were rescued from flooded areas in Escambia County as of Wednesday afternoon, officials said, and at least one shelter had been opened to handle the crush of evacuees. Two rivers in the county are expected to overflow, leading to more flooding.
Mayor Tony Kennon of Orange Beach, Ala., said that one person had died as a result of the storm and that another was missing. Officials would perform minimal search-and-rescue operations at night because of dangerous conditions, including debris in the water, he said.
As of 9 p.m. Central time, 275,000 electricity customers in Alabama and 240,000 customers in Florida were still without power, prompting the National Weather Service in Mobile and Pensacola to issue warnings about the proper use of generators. At least seven people died from carbon monoxide poisoning from generators during Hurricane Laura last month.
Videos from residents and local media outlets showed images of homes that had been ripped apart by the howling winds, boats torn from their moorings and power lines downed in many towns and cities. In Foley, Ala., just north of the hurricane’s landfall, images showed a destroyed mobile home and a door that appeared to have been yanked by wind from a house.
And everywhere, water.
In recent days, the storm’s projected point of landfall had veered by nearly 200 miles. It had once been expected to rake over the remote, low-lying areas of southeastern Louisiana and possibly reach beyond the New Orleans metropolitan area. Instead, it was the more populated areas around Mobile, Ala., and Pensacola that bore the brunt of the storm.
Sally left much of south Alabama in a chaotic mess on Wednesday as it dumped rain and battered the region with dangerous wind gusts.
Mobile, which had virtually shut down, avoided the brunt of the storm but still saw high wind gusts that caused the Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel, a high-rise, to sway and shudder as if it were in an earthquake. Outside, debris from damaged buildings cluttered walkways, including big panels that had flown off a valet parking overhang.
On Interstate 65, a few drivers inched their way across the high twin-span bridge north of the city that crosses the Mobile River. On Alabama State Route 59 — a highway that ends at Gulf Shores — large trees completely blocked northbound lanes, forcing drivers onto the opposite side of the road. Smaller roads were choked with fallen branches and leaves.
In Loxley, Ala., a convenience store and gas station was crowded with motorists fueling up. Inside, residents bought 12-packs of beer, cigarettes and potato chips.
Down the road, Tim Booth, 62, a semi-retired truck driver, was standing in his front yard, a mist of rain falling on him while he chopped up a downed fir tree with a buzzing chain saw. Mr. Booth said he and his wife and 19-year-old son had thought about heading to a relative’s brick house in Pensacola, but they decided to ride out the storm given the predictions of relatively low wind speed.
But the wind was stronger than anybody thought, and Mr. Booth’s family spent a harrowing night in their mobile home. “We really started feeling it after midnight,” he said. “Man, it just unloaded. It felt like Ivan” — a Category 3 hurricane from the 2004 season.
Nobody saw it coming.
Hurricane Sally looked like it was going to hit New Orleans. Then Gulfport, Miss. Then Mobile, Ala. But after making landfall in Gulf Shores, Ala., it took a right turn on Wednesday morning and plowed into Pensacola, Fla.
The city knows about the fickleness of hurricanes. But this one surprised nearly everyone. It was worst by the waterfront, where a pretty square called Plaza Ferdinand was a tangle of fallen magnolia and oak branches.
Nearby, two 72-foot catamaran ferries, used to shuttle tourists out to the Gulf Islands National Seashore, were banging wildly against black metal fencing near the marina. Frank Rawley, the captain of one of the boats, was improvising a way to tie them up. He said the dock to which they had been tethered was gone. “Everything got ripped away,” he said. “It just tore everything away.”
Sandy and Peter McDavid, the owners of the Palafox Wharf Reception Venue, a 19th-century building next to a marina, had come down to inspect the place, which if often rented for wedding receptions. A big blue sailboat had smashed into the railings of their deck. Water from the street had seeped onto the wooden floor on the ground level, and a skylight had blown off and let rainwater in, soaking the carpet on the second floor.
“We weren’t expecting it,” Mr. McDavid said. “We thought it was going to go to Alabama.”
Omi Yoder and her husband moved to the Bristol Park subdivision two months ago. They bought a brick house with white siding — generously sized but not too fancy — on a cul de sac next to a creek.
It is a place to nest: Ms. Yoder is due to have a baby — her first child, a girl — in about a month. On Wednesday, the place filled up with about two feet of water. The nursery they had been working on was ruined.
They had seen the water rising up from the street and were able to scramble and move some things upstairs. But the water ruined carpets and other things, which they and some friends were dragging out to the curb in the late afternoon.
Ms. Yoder did not know if the cars in the garage would start. They got water, too. She figured they would have to redo the floors. And start over again on the nursery.
She described her emotional state succinctly: “Overwhelmed.”
As raging wildfires burn vast swaths of the West Coast, and as the molasses-slow Hurricane Sally pounds the Gulf Coast, scientists say we are witnessing, again, the role of climate change in exacerbating natural disasters.
True to predictions by government scientists in May, this hurricane season has been among the most active on record, with 20 named storms so far. With the National Hurricane Center rapidly running out of letters of the alphabet for subsequent storms, ones after that will be based on the Greek alphabet in the likely event there are two more.
Scientists know that climate change has made hurricanes wetter, because as the atmosphere warms it can hold more moisture. But there is evidence that it can make them slow down, too, enabling the storms to pelt land with heavy rains and winds for longer.
Studies by Michael E. Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State, and others suggest that increased Arctic warmth reduces the temperature differential between that region and the tropics. This leads to a slowing of the jet stream, which affects other circulation patterns in the tropics but also in mid-latitude areas like North America.
“Our work indicates that climate change is favoring this phenomenon,” Dr. Mann wrote in an email. “It likely plays a role in the decreased translation speed of landfalling hurricanes.”
Though conservative media and President Trump have disputed any suggestion that climate change is a factor in the West Coast wildfires, scientists have identified it as a primary cause.
Sally made landfall on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Ivan, a Category 3 beast that made landfall just west of Gulf Shores on Sept. 16, 2004.
“Sept. 16 does not seem to be a good day for Pensacola,” Chief Deputy Sheriff Chip W. Simmons of Escambia County said in a briefing on Wednesday.
Ivan wreaked more havoc with its powerful winds, while Sally’s rain and storm surge appeared worse, the deputy sheriff said, describing low-lying parts of western Perdido Key being underwater on Wednesday, with fallen trees and electricity poles.
The 2004 hurricane season was deadly. Hurricane Ivan killed 57 people in the United States and 67 people in Caribbean countries and caused billions of dollars in damage.
The storm also collapsed a portion of the I-10 Escambia Bay Bridge over Pensacola Bay, an eerie parallel to an accident during Sally. On Wednesday, the Pensacola Bay Bridge — which was under construction and is known as the Three Mile Bridge — sustained significant damage when a construction barge repeatedly slammed into it.
A couple of days ago, Pensacola officials hoped the worst part of the storm might miss them.
“Then all of a sudden it takes a bit of a jog,” Deputy Sheriff Simmons said, describing the storm’s path. “And it stayed with us, and it stayed with us, and it stayed with us.”
Still recovering from Hurricane Laura and now bracing for Hurricane Sally, residents along the Gulf Coast and the Eastern Seaboard warily watched reports of other major storms developing in the Atlantic.
On Monday, before Tropical Depression Rene dissolved, there were five concurrent named storms in the Atlantic, which has not happened since 1971, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Three are still active.
Hurricane Paulette packed winds of 100 miles per hour about 450 miles south of Newfoundland, Canada, and threatened to bring dangerous surf and rip current conditions to Bermuda, the Bahamas and parts of the Atlantic Coast.
Tropical Storm Teddy was gaining strength about 865 miles east of the Lesser Antilles and was projected to near “major hurricane strength” as it approaches Bermuda over the weekend.
And Tropical Storm Vicky had maximum sustained winds of 50 miles per hour about 710 miles west of Cape Verde, though it was not projected to threaten land and was expected to weaken in the coming days.
Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Johnny Diaz, Richard Fausset, Patricia Mazzei, Rick Rojas, Marc Santora, Daniel Victor and Will Wright.