The slow-moving destruction of Hurricane Sally

CityLab Daily

Slow-going: Parts of coastal Alabama and the Florida panhandle woke up to catastrophic flooding, mass power outages and at least one death after Hurricane Sally made landfall Wednesday in the Southeastern U.S. as a Category 2 storm. It took residents in Pensacola, Florida — one of the hardest-hit cities — by surprise as the storm was projected to hit closer to New Orleans but unexpectedly veered nearly 200 miles to the east. Pensacola received 30 inches of rain, or "four months' worth of rain in just four hours," the city fire chief told CNN.

Sally is the fourth hurricane to hit the U.S. this year during an extremely active season that has produced 20 named storms, the second most on record. It was weaker than Hurricane Laura, a "major" Category 4 storm, but if there is any misperception about the destructive power of a Category 2 hurricane, the likes of Sally are beginning to set the record straight. Hundreds have had to be rescued by boat as roads became rivers and houses were submerged and torn apart by high-speed winds. Surging water reaching more than five feet has also damaged at least one bridge. And the threat isn't over as Sally moves northeast, bringing heavy rain and flooding to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia even as it weakens to a tropical depression.

The severity of Sally's damage is in part attributed to its slow-moving pace of just two to three miles per hour. In 2019, another slow-moving Category 2 hurricane, Dorian, grazed the coast of South Carolina, bringing intense rain that, combined with an above-average high tide, quickly overwhelmed Charleston's aging drainage system. Emerging research paints a grim forecast in which climate change will bring even more crawling storms in the future as increasing temperatures allow them to gather more water, according to National Geographic. For cities, that means it no longer takes a major hurricane to inundate entire communities.

-Linda Poon

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