PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — Hurricane Sally lumbered ashore near the Florida-Alabama line Wednesday with 105 mph (165 kph) winds and rain measured in feet, not inches, swamping homes and forcing the rescue of hundreds of people as it pushed inland for what could be a slow and disastrous drenching across the Deep South.
Moving at just 3 mph (5 kph), or about as fast as a person can walk, the storm made landfall at 4:45 a.m. close to Gulf Shores, Alabama, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Pensacola, Florida. It accelerated to a light jog as it battered the Pensacola and Mobile, Alabama, metropolitan areas encompassing nearly 1 million people
It cast boats onto land or sank them at the dock, flattened palm trees, peeled away roofs, blew down signs and knocked out power to more than a 540,000 homes and businesses. A replica of Christopher Columbus’ ship the Nina that had been docked at the Pensacola waterfront was missing, police said.
Sally tore loose a barge-mounted construction crane, which then smashed into the new Three Mile Bridge over Pensacola Bay, causing a section of the year-old span to collapse, authorities said. The storm also ripped away a large section of a fishing pier at Alabama’s Gulf State Park on the very day a ribbon-cutting had been scheduled following a $2.4 million renovation.
By the afternoon, authorities in Escambia County, which includes Pensacola, said at least 377 people had been rescued from flooded areas. More than 40 people trapped by high water were brought to safety within a single hour, including a family of four found in a tree, Sheriff David Morgan said.
Authorities in Pensacola, where Sally turned some streets into white-capped rivers for a time, said 200 National Guard members would arrive Thursday to help. Curfews were announced in Escambia County and in some coastal Alabama towns.
By early afternoon, Sally had weakened into a tropical storm, with winds down to 70 mph (110 kph). Showers still fell in parts of the stricken area Wednesday evening, and the storm was expected to generate heavy rain farther inland Thursday as it moved over Alabama and into Georgia. For much of the day, it moved at just 5 mph (7 kph), concentrating the rainfall.
Morgan estimated thousands will need to flee rising waters in the coming days. Escambia officials urged residents to rely on text messages for contacting family and friends to keep cellphone service open for 911 calls.
“There are entire communities that we’re going to have to evacuate,” the sheriff said. “It’s going to be a tremendous operation over the next several days.”
West of Pensacola, power poles leaned halfway over in Perdido Key, Florida, as Joe Mirable arrived at his real estate business to find the two-story building shattered. Digging through the ruins, Mirable pointed out a binder labeled “Hurricane Action Plan.”
“I think the professionals got this one wrong,” he said before the wind blew away his hat.
More than 2 feet (61 centimeters) of rain was recorded near Naval Air Station Pensacola, and nearly 3 feet (1 meter) of water covered streets in downtown Pensacola, the National Weather Service reported.