Downtown Mobile as Hurricane Sally approaches Mobile, the US, September 15 2020. Picture: REUTERS/JONATHAN BACHMAN
Downtown Mobile as Hurricane Sally approaches Mobile, the US, September 15 2020. Picture: REUTERS/JONATHAN BACHMAN

New York — Hurricane Sally is edging towards the US Gulf Coast, where it could inflict as much as $5bn in damage and losses across Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle from the “historic” flooding it’s about to unleash on the region.

Sally’s core will come ashore on Wednesday along the Florida Panhandle and Alabama coastline, reducing the threat to New Orleans, but raising worries in Mobile. Hurricane-force winds had begun to spread onshore as of 3am New York time, according to the National Hurricane Centre. The storm’s top winds strengthened to 169km/h, making it a category 2 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, as it moves towards the coast at about 3.2km/h.

“Historic, life-threatening flash flooding is likely,” Dan Brown, a hurricane centre forecaster, wrote in his outlook. “In addition, this rainfall will lead to widespread moderate to major flooding in area rivers.”

The storm, which has sparked evacuations from some offshore energy platforms, has slowed as it closes in on the Gulf Coast.

The US has been pummeled by natural disasters this year, with wildfires devastating the west, storms causing billions of dollars of damage in the east and along the Gulf Coast, and a derecho ripping through the Midwest earlier this summer. With the emergence of Tropical Storm Vicky, the Atlantic basin has now produced 20 storms, the second most on record. Only 2005 had more storms, with 28.

Winds strengthened rapidly early on Wednesday after slowing to 128km/h on Tuesday. A storm surge up to 2m is possible along parts of the Gulf Coast. Lesser amounts will occur near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

“Any time the surge goes above [1m] it is very problematic,” said Dan Kottlowski, a meteorologist with AccuWeather. Several hundred square kilometres along the coast could get more than 50cm of rain, which “classifies as major flooding potential”.

The flooding could lead to widespread damage because after Sally comes ashore, it will drift east through Georgia and South Carolina, wringing out more rain as it does.

“I think the focus will be Mobile and inland Alabama flooding,” said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeller with Enki Research. He estimates damages and losses will range between $3bn and $5bn, less if the heaviest rain stays off shore, but costs could rise if there is wind damage.

Disasters and emergencies have been declared along the Gulf Coast by state and local agencies, as well as the federal government.

Oil disruption

Across the Gulf, just more than 23% of production platforms and 30% of rigs have been evacuated, according to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. Nearly 27% of oil production and more than 28% of gas has been shut in. Phillips 66 said it would shut its Alliance refinery in Louisiana ahead of the storm.

The floods could affect cotton, corn and peanut crops through the region, though widespread damage isn’t expected, said Don Keeney, a meteorologist with Maxar.

Seven storms have hit the US in 2020, including Hurricane Laura, which devastated southwest Louisiana, and Hurricane Isaias, which temporarily knocked out power to millions in the Northeast.

In addition to Sally, a few other storms are churning in the Atlantic. Hurricane Paulette is drifting out to sea after battering Bermuda. The other storms — Teddy and Vicky — won’t be an immediate threat to land. There is a 70% chance a fifth storm could form in the next five days.


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