Hurricane Sally is creeping towards the northern Gulf Coast of the United States, bringing heavy rains and surging water ahead of its expected landfall as a Category 2 hurricane, with the chance of further strengthening possible.
Forecasters have warned of potentially deadly storm surges, flash floods spurred by up to two feet (609mm) of rain and the possibility of tornadoes later on Tuesday.
The second strong storm in less than a month to threaten the region, Sally’s winds increased to 155 kph (100 mph) east of the mouth of the Mississippi River, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said late on Monday.
It could wallop the Mississippi and Alabama coasts on Tuesday with devastating winds of up to 178 kph (110 mph), on the cusp of becoming a Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity, the NHC said.
Hurricanes are considered to have the potential for devastating damage when they have sustained winds past 179 kph (111 mph).
President Donald Trump issued emergency declarations for parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama on Monday, and on Twitter urged residents to listen to state and local leaders.
Waters from the Gulf of Mexico pour onto a road in Waveland, Mississippi [Gerald Herbert/AP]
Mobile, Alabama Mayor Sandy Stimpson warned residents he expected a “tremendous amount of flooding” and said the city was barricading intersections likely to see high water.
Ports, schools and businesses closed along the coast. The US Coast Guard restricted travel on the lower Mississippi River in 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.
The hurricane is expected to dump between eight and 16 inches (200 to 400mm) of rain on the coast with isolated 24-inch (610mm) downpours – and cause widespread river flooding.
Mississippi appears more likely for landfall, but Sally’s biggest threat is that it will be a “rainmaker” across a wide swath of the Gulf Coast, with three to four inches (76 to 100mm) 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 of tropical storm or hurricane strength to hit the US – something “very rare if not a record”, said Dan Kottlowski, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather, noting that accurate data on historical tropical storms can be elusive.