Hurricane Sally closed in on the U.S. Gulf Coast on Tuesday, threatening historic floods, the National Hurricane Center said, with more than 2 feet (61 cm) of rain expected in some areas.
The second strong storm in less than a month to threaten the region, Sally’s winds decreased to 80 miles (140 km) per hour, and at 1 p.m. (1800 GMT) was 60 miles (95 km) east of the mouth of the Mississippi River, the NHC said, moving at a glacial pace of two miles per hour.
It could wallop the Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coasts on Tuesday night or early Wednesday with massive flash flooding and storm surges of up to 7 feet (2.1 meters) in some spots. Its languid pace recalls 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, which dumped several feet of rain over a period of days on the Houston area.
With most of Alabama in the path of the storm, Governor Kay Ivey pleaded with residents who had not evacuated to leave low-lying coastal areas. “I urge you in the strongest way possible to evacuate if conditions permit,” she said.
Coastal roads in Pascagoula, Mississippi, were flooding on Tuesday and some electrical wires were down, according to photos and social media posts from the police department, which asked people to respect road barricades and “refrain from joy riding.”
Nearly 11,000 homes are at risk of storm surge in the larger coastal cities in Alabama and Mississippi, according to estimates from property data and analytics firm CoreLogic.
“Historic flooding is likely with extreme life-threatening flash flooding likely through Wednesday,” NHC said in a mid-morning update.
Steady winds and bands of rain had started to arrive in Gulf Shores by Tuesday morning. Samantha Frederickson, who recently moved to Gulf Shores, Alabama, hit the beach early Tuesday to catch a view of the storm surf. “At the moment, we’re riding it out,” she said amid light rains and winds. “When it gets to the point we don’t feel comfortable, we’ll take off.”
President Donald Trump made emergency declarations for Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, which helps coordinate disaster relief.
Ports, schools and businesses closed along the coast. The U.S. Coast Guard restricted travel on the lower Mississippi River from New Orleans to the Gulf, and closed the ports of Pascagoula and Gulfport, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama.
Energy companies buttoned up or halted oil refineries and pulled workers from offshore oil and gas production platforms. More than a quarter of U.S. offshore oil production was shut.
The hurricane is expected to dump between 10 and 20 inches of rain on the coast, with isolated 30-inch downpours.
Sally’s biggest threat is that it will be a “rainmaker” across a wide swath of the Gulf Coast, with 3 to 4 inches in areas as far inland as Atlanta, said Jim Foerster, chief meteorologist at DTN, an energy, agriculture and weather data provider.
Sally is the 18th named storm in the Atlantic this year and will be the eighth tropical storm or hurricane to hit the United States – something “very rare if not a record” said Dan Kottlowski, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather, noting that accurate data on historic tropical storms can be elusive.