PENSACOLA, Fla. – Part of a bridge collapsed in Pensacola as 30 inches of rain and storm surge turned streets into white-capped rivers Wednesday morning after Hurricane Sally lurched ashore the Gulf Coast.
Sally’s strong winds battered Alabama and Florida as the center moved over the Panhandle by afternoon. In Pensacola, Florida, a section of the Pensacola Bay Bridge collapsed, and downtown was largely underwater.
Flooding as the slow storm dumped intense rains has proven to be Sally’s most serious danger: “Historic and catastrophic flooding, including widespread moderate to major river flooding, is unfolding,” forecasters say.
Photos and video from coastal areas showed trees downed, debris and boats thrown about and streets flooded. Around 9 a.m. local time, a water level station in Pensacola reported inundation around 5.5 feet above sea level, the National Hurricane Center said.
Flash flooding emergencies were in effect and rescue efforts underway for parts of southeastern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle as the storm could dump up to 35 inches of rain in isolated pockets.
Sally made landfall at 4:45 a.m. with winds of 105 mph near Gulf Shores, Alabama. The storm’s center, picking up in speed at 5 mph as it moves north-northeast, will head across southeastern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle through early Thursday, and will weaken to a tropical depression by Thursday morning.
As Sally thrashed ashore near Gulf Shores, Alabama, the pier at Gulf State Park suffered significant damage, with the storm destroying large sections of the structure.
Montgomery resident Joe Whatley said friends sent photos from the scene showing much damage near the beach, with debris and a section of Gulf State Park Pier missing. Several boats were washed ashore.
“This whole earth and seas all belong to God,” Whatley said. “He just lets us share them as long as we need to. If we’ve got to rebuild, we just rebuild and go on.”
Brandon Anderson, a resident of the Oak Lodge Mobile Home Park west of Pensacola, brought out chainsaws Wednesday morning to help take a part massive trees blocking the entrance to the park.
During the worst of the storm, Anderson said he saw flashes of light, what he thought to be power lines snapping. “I felt my house shaking. There’s a lot of light blasts, it’s a little scary,” he said.
Kenneth McElory said he woke up at 4 a.m. to screaming winds and green flashes of light around his house. The next thing he knew, a massive tree fell into his living room.
McElroy said that besides feeling “homelesss,” he was optimistic that things would get better — someday, if not today.
“You can’t get down on yourself, it will make it worse,” he said. “At least everybody is accounted for.”
Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan confirmed a section of Three Mile Bridge is missing, the largest reported damage to date from Hurricane Sally. Santa Rosa County Emergency Management tweeted a photo showing the missing section of bridge.
Images indicate a crane fell on the bridge and knocked away a section of the road way. The brand new Three Mile Bridge, or Pensacola Bay Bridge, connects the city to Gulf Breeze.
The Florida Department of Transportation said it has been unable to assess any possible damage to the bridge due to ongoing high winds.
On Tuesday, a construction barge broke loose, struck the fishing pier and lodged itself under the Three Mile Bridge, forcing the closure of the bridge.
Much of downtown Pensacola was underwater Wednesday morning, with floodwaters turning streets into white-capped rivers and downed trees bookending Palafox Street. Downtown was mostly empty, save for police officers and a few brave onlookers.
Nick Zangari, owner of New York Nick’s Badlands bar, was sitting in the doorway of his dark, empty bar on Palafox looking out into the street. Zangari has been at the bar since Monday, saying he wanted to keep an eye on his building. But he didn’t expect things to get as bad as they did overnight Tuesday.
A few blocks down, on Jefferson Street, floodwaters were submerging cars around the Holiday Inn Express and Pensacola Little Theatre. The floodwaters looked more like the Gulf of Mexico as winds tossed the water around.
People could be seen standing on the porch of the hotel, trapped and looking out over the water that used to be a parking lot.
The United Cajun Navy has boots on the ground in Orange Beach and is surveying the damage so far from the Category 2 storm.
The nonprofit organization, dedicated to providing relief efforts and equipping rescue teams to areas affected by natural disasters, posted a video on Facebook that shows storm surge and heavy flooding on streets as well as an overturned boat on the side of the road next to a refrigerator.
Rescue crews are working to pull people from their homes damaged by Hurricane Sally and in the midst of massive flooding, Senior Forecaster David Eversole with the National Weather Service in Mobile said.
“There’s two flash flood emergencies currently in effect for coastal Baldwin over to Fort Walton Beach,” he said.
Eversole said he’s gotten reports of damage to several condos in the Gulf Shores area, as well as damage to the Surf Shop and Pink Pony Pub. Debris in Orange Beach sloshed against some condos as a boat floated its way between some of the buildings.
“We know people are being rescued and we know there is severe property damage,” he said.
Sally’s path and landfall is eerily similar to Hurricane Ivan’s, which made landfall on the same day – Sept. 16 – in 2004, 16 years ago, in nearly the exact same place that Sally is projected to land. Ivan was a stronger Category 3 storm and devastated the area.
Not even wet and windy Hurricane Sally was able to blow away the Flora-Bama. The “most famous beach bar in the country” is still standing, according to a photo and caption the United Cajun Navy posted Wednesday morning at 5:23 a.m. CT. The volunteer rescue group is currently hosting relief efforts in Escambia County.
The photo shows no visible damage to its roof or its walls, but shows rising water surrounding the landmark bar on the border of Alabama and Florida.
Okaloosa County rescue workers were called upon early Wednesday as Sally created flooding that required emergency evacuations in some areas.
“We are receiving reports of flooded roadways and homes and are actively engaged in water rescues and evacuations,” Okaloosa Public Safety Director Patrick Maddox said in a 4 a.m. update to county officials.
County spokesman Christopher Saul said 543 people in the south end of Okaloosa County were “in need of evacuation” as of about 5:30 a.m. Rescue workers had succeeded in helping 79 people evacuate from the Baker area, he said.
The National Weather Service in Mobile reported a trained spotter estimated 30 inches of rain in Northwest Pensacola. NAS Pensacola recorded 24.8 inches of rain and wind gusts up to 92 miles per hour.
“It’s when we have a flash flood that is posing a significant risk to lives and property,” said Dave Eversole, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mobile, Alabama. “That means there’s people out there literally pulling people out of homes and rescuing people out of cars. It’s right along with a tornado emergency, it’s one of our two most serious warnings.”
Interstate 10, eastbound and westbound, at the Escambia Bay Bridge is also closed due to high sustained winds.
Jim Cantore, the famed Weather Channel weatherman, was in Pensacola early Wednesday to track the storm. Cantore is notorious for reporting from some of the worst weather situations in the country.
He tweeted video of powerful winds tearing through the city Wednesday morning and shots from the Weather Channel showed him being battered by the heavy rain.
Sally is the eighth named storm to make landfall in the continental U.S. this year — the most through Sept. 16 in recorded history, surpassing the seven storms of 1916, according to Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist and meteorologist at Colorado State University.
The record for most continental U.S. landfalls in a single Atlantic season is nine, also set in 1916. The center of Sally’s eye made landfall around 4:45 a.m. local time near near Gulf Shores, Alabama.
News – Hurricane Sally tracker, damage: Landfall in Gulf Shores; Pensacola