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Hurricane Sally made landfall near Gulf Shores, Alabama, at 5:45 a.m. EDT September 16, as a category 2 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 105 mph and a central pressure of 965 mb. Sally put on an unexpected last-minute burst of intensification just before landfall, strengthening from 85 mph winds at 11 p.m. EDT to 105 mph winds at 2 a.m. EDT.

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During the final 30 hours before landfall, Sally was moving forward at 2 – 3 mph, making for a prolonged wind and storm surge coastal event, and dumping catastrophic amounts of rain. NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center reported heavy damage and extreme flooding near the coast where Sally made landfall.

At 11 a.m. EDT Wednesday, September 16, Sally was centered 15 miles west-northwest of Pensacola, Florida, headed north-northeast at 5 mph with top sustained winds of 80 mph and a central pressure of 975 mb. More than 24 inches of rain had been recorded at Pensacola Naval Air Station, and radar-estimated rainfall amounts in excess of 20 inches fell along approximately a 100-mile stretch of coast along the Alabama/Florida border (Figure 1).

Some wind reports during Sally’s landfall included:

– a sustained wind of 81 mph and a gust to 99 mph at Dauphin Island, Alabama;– a sustained wind of 61 mph and a gust to 86 mph at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, Florida;– a sustained wind of 98 mph and a gust to 116 mph at an elevated National Ocean Service CO-OP station in Fort Morgan, Alabama;– a sustained wind of 75 mph and a gust to 93 mph at a University of Florida weather tower at Gulf Shores, Alabama; and– a sustained wind of 71 mph and a pressure of 970.9 mb inside the eastern portion ofSally’s eye at NOAA buoy 42012, about 50 miles southeast of Mobile, Alabama.

As of 10 a.m. EDT, over 500,000 homes and businesses had lost power in southern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, according to Significant flash flooding with flooded roads and homes has also occurred in numerous spots from southeast Alabama into the western Florida Panhandle. Major river flooding was occurring at the Styx River and Fish River in southeast Alabama.

Sally’s powerful winds and very slow motion allowed the hurricane to pile up a large and damaging storm surge near the Florida/Alabama border, to the right of where the eye made landfall. A peak storm tide of 5.6 feet occurred Wednesday morning at Pensacola, Florida – its third highest water level on record. The five highest water levels on record since 1923 at Pensacola are:

9.54 feet, September 16, 2014, Hurricane Ivan;7.41 feet, September 20, 1926, Great Miami Hurricane;5.60 feet, September 16, 2020, Hurricane Sally;5.43 feet, August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina; and4.71 feet, October 4, 1995, Hurricane Opal.

Water levels at Dauphin Island, Alabama peaked at 3.1 feet above high tide before Sally’s offshore winds began blowing the water away from shore. It was the island’s sixth-highest water level on record (since 1966).

Trabus Technologies maintains a live storm surge tracker for Sally. As of 11 a.m. EDT Wednesday, the peak surges measured at other NOAA tide gauges from Sally were:

4.9 feet at Shell Beach, Louisiana (east-southeast of New Orleans);3.8 feet at Pilottown, Louisiana (near the mouth of the Mississippi River);3.4 feet at Panama City Beach, Florida;3.2 feet at Waveland, Mississippi;3.2 feet at New Canal Station, Louisiana; and2.7 feet at Apalachicola, Florida.

A storm surge of approximately 3.5 feet moved up the Mississippi River to New Orleans on Tuesday. Water levels on the river peaked about 11 feet below the tops of the levees, and New Orleans was spared heavy rain from Sally.

Sally remains caught in a region of weak steering currents, and it is expected to slowly increase its forward speed from 5 mph at 11 a.m. EDT Wednesday to 8 mph by 11 p.m. EDT. With a large portion of the storm’s circulation still over water, Sally will continue to dump epic rainfall amounts near its landfall location, with some isolated rainfall measurements of up to 35 inches possible.

It’s not out of the question that an all-time state precipitation record for a tropical cyclone could fall, though these are tough to beat. The current records along Sally’s path are:

Florida: 45.20 inches (Hurricane Easy, 1950);Alabama: 37.75 inches (Hurricane Danny, 1997); andGeorgia: 27.85 inches (Tropical Storm Alberto, 1994).

Continued storm surge flooding will occur along the western Florida Panhandle coast until Sally pulls away from the region on Thursday. Tidal range between low and high tide in Pensacola is about two feet. High tide Wednesday is at 12:12 p.m. EDT, and the city could see its greatest storm tide flooding then. Storm tide is the combination of the storm surge and the tide.

Sally is the eighth named storm to make landfall in the U.S. so far in 2020, setting a record for the earliest an eighth storm has made a continental U.S. landfall. Only one other hurricane season has had more continental U.S. landfalls for a full season: 1916, with nine. Second place is jointly held by 2005, 2004, 1985, and now 2020, each with eight.

Here are the other Atlantic named storms in 2020 to hit the U.S., along with their preliminary damage estimates from insurance broker Aon and other sources:

During the period 1851 – 2019, the U.S. averaged 3.2 named storm landfalls per year, 1.6 hurricane landfalls, and 0.5 major hurricane landfalls.

Sally is the fourth landfalling hurricane in the continental U.S. this year. The most recent year with four or more landfalling continental U.S. hurricanes was 2005, with five landfalls. The record year was 1886, with seven. The continental U.S. had six land-falling hurricanes during the years 2005, 2004, and 1985. Thanks go to Colorado State University’s Dr. Phil Klotzbach for many of these statistics.

We’ll post here a full update on the tropics later today.

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Posted on September 16, 2020 (1:33pm EDT).

Jeff Masters, Ph.D., worked as a hurricane scientist with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990. After a near-fatal flight into category 5 Hurricane Hugo, he left the Hurricane Hunters to pursue a... More by Jeff Masters

5.60 feet, September 16, 2020, Hurricane Sally;