U.S. Gulf Coast residents brace as Hurricane Sally strengthens to dangerous Category 2

A rapidly intensifying Hurricane Sally is closing in on the northern U.S. Gulf Coast after reaching Category 2 strength.

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami says Sally has grown into an extremely dangerous hurricane with top sustained winds of 155 km/h.

The storm could drop as much as 60 centimetres of rain in spots, which the NHC said could bring severe flooding. Sally is one of five storms churning simultaneously in the Atlantic Ocean.

Storm-weary Gulf Coast residents rushed to buy bottled water and other supplies ahead of the storm, which was expected to reach Louisiana’s southeastern tip around daybreak Tuesday and make its way sluggishly north into Mississippi on a path that could menace the New Orleans metropolitan area and cause a long, slow drenching.

Jeremy Burke lifted objects off the floor in case of flooding in his Bay Books bookstore in the Old Town neighbourhood of Bay St. Louis, Miss., a popular weekend getaway from New Orleans, about 95 kilometres to the west. The streets outside were emptying fast.

Residents fill sandbags as Hurricane Sally approaches in Bay St. Louis, Miss., on Monday. (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

“It’s turning into a ghost town,” he said. “Everybody’s biggest fear is the storm surge, and the worst possible scenario being that it just stalls out. That would be a dicey situation for everybody.”

Sally is perhaps the least welcome guest among lots of company: For only the second time on record, five tropical cyclones were churning simultaneously in the Atlantic basin, according to meteorologist Philip Klotzbach.

In addition to Sally, the storms included Hurricane Paulette, which passed over a well-fortified Bermuda on Monday and was expected to peel harmlessly out into the North Atlantic, as well as tropical storms Rene, Teddy and Vicky, all of them out at sea.

Sally’s sluggish track could give it more time to drench the Mississippi Delta with rain and push storm surge ashore.

People in New Orleans watched the storm’s track intently. A more easterly course could bring torrential rain and damaging winds to Mississippi. A more westerly track would pose another test for the low-lying city, where heavy rains have to be pumped out through a century-old drainage system.

Police are seen at a checkpoint in Shell Beach, La., on Monday. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Even with a push toward the east, New Orleans, which is on Lake Pontchartain, will be in the storm surge area, said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy. He said New Orleans “should be very concerned in terms of track.”

The NHC was forecasting storm surges of up to 3.4 metres, including 1.2 to 1.8 metres in Lake Pontchartrain and roughly one metre in downtown Mobile, Ala., a city of about 189,000 people. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey closed beaches Monday and called for evacuations.

In eastern New Orleans, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said drainage canals had been lowered in anticipation of torrential rains and cautioned drivers not to drive through flood waters.

New Orleans police went on 12-hour shifts, and rescue boats, barricades, backup generators and other equipment were readied, Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said.

On Aug. 27, Hurricane Laura blew ashore in southwestern Louisiana along the Texas line, well west of New Orleans, tearing off roofs and leaving large parts of the city of Lake Charles uninhabitable. The storm was blamed for 32 deaths in the two states, the vast majority of them in Louisiana.

Other Gulf Coast states urged residents to prepare for Sally.

In Jackson, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said the hurricane could dump up to 51 centimetres of rain in the southern part of the state.

Shelters opened, but due to concerns about the coronavirus, officials urged people who are evacuating to stay with friends, relatives or in hotels if possible.

A truck plows through seawater after winds from Sally mixed with the high tide caused flooding in Waveland, Miss., on Monday. (Lukas Flippo/The Sun Herald via AP)

People in shelters will be required to wear masks and other protective equipment, authorities said.

“Planning for a Cat 1 or Cat 2 hurricane is always complicated,” Reeves said. “Planning for it during 2020 and the life of COVID makes it even more challenging.”

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