Hurricane Sally moves ashore, bringing “catastrophic and life-threatening” flooding

Gov. Ron DeSantis describes severe flooding in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties caused by Hurricane Sally, with more flooding to come as the storm dumps rain on the region. Credit: The Florida Channel

Governor Ron DeSantis plans to tour storm-ravaged northwest Florida Thursday in a Coast Guard flyover in the wake of Hurricane Sally, which made landfall early Wednesday, bringing “catastrophic and life-threatening flooding” that may continue for many days.

In a press conference Wednesday night at the Florida Emergency Operations Center, DeSantis said no fatalities have been linked to the storm so far and that 600 search-and-rescue missions are in progress. He described damage seen so far as severe, with 30 inches of rainfall flooding parts of Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties, as well as Alabama counties to the west.

DeSantis said 130,000 residents in Escambia County, the hardest hit, are without power. He expects utility crews staged in the region to start working on power restoration Thursday where conditions allow. He also warned that meteorologists expect local rivers and restricted bodies of water to crest and flood in coming days as rain continues to pour down. He urged residents to be vigilant.

Hurricane Sally made landfall as a strong Category 2 storm just west of Pensacola, bringing high winds, high storm surge and torrential rainfall to the northern Gulf coasts of Alabama and Florida. It was on track to come ashore farther west but made a late “wobble” to the east, creating more impact on Florida than was expected, DeSantis said.

The National Hurricane Center reported “catastrophic and life-threatening flooding” in the Florida Panhandle and southern Alabama, and it issued ongoing warnings about flooding and tornadoes as Sally slowly moves northeasterly, having diminished in strength after making landfall but still dumping torrential rain on the region.

DeSantis announced he dispatched 500 Florida National Guard men and women and is sending high-water vehicles, helicopters and urban search-and-rescue teams to the disaster areas to begin operations when the wind and water subside to manageable levels.

During an interview with the Weather Channel, DeSantis warned residents that flooding in this case is even more dangerous than the high winds, which reached sustained speeds of 105 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. He urged residents to move away from floodwaters, which he predicted will worsen substantially.

“This is a very slow-moving storm. You’re going to see more and more water accumulate,” he said.

“What will happen is, as this storm continues to move past places like Pensacola and goes north, the water that it drops north of the Panhandle is also going to impact floods that could happen several days from now. So this is not something that’s going to be a one- or two-day thing. People are going to have to be vigilant for one or two days.”

DeSantis told the Weather Channel he plans to visit the region this week when the storm moves out of the region. He expressed confidence that state and local emergency managers, first responders and shelter providers know how to handle the emergency, even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is kind of second nature to them,” he said. “They are pros. They figure out how to get it done.”

DeSantis urged evacuees to maintain their health safety protocols as much as possible to avoid contracting COVID-19 during the emergency.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday approved federal disaster relief funding for additional Florida counties, now 13, reflecting state disaster declarations issued by the governor Tuesday in executive orders.

The expanded FEMA order authorizes federal disaster relief for Bay, Escambia, Holmes, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Walton and Washington counties and limited assistance for nearby counties of Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Jackson and Liberty.

The federal declarations make direct public assistance, equipment and resources available to the 13 counties, atop state and local resources, according to FEMA’s Region 4 office, whose jurisdiction includes Florida and Alabama.

Deputy editor Michael Moline contributed to this report.