Hurricane Sally touched down on the coast of Alabama in the US early Wednesday morning local time, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) confirmed, bringing with it torrential rains and a surge of ocean water that could cause devastating flooding in the days to come.
The Category 2 hurricane moved ashore at a slow 5 kilometers (3 miles) per hour, hitting the Gulf Coast with winds blowing 165 kilometers per hour.
The coastal areas of the states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida are particularly vulnerable to damage from the hurricane, the NHC said. Some isolated areas could receive nearly three feet (89 centimeters) of rain, according to the center.
The storm made landfall close to Gulf Shores, Alabama, and quickly moved over to Pensacola, Florida and Mobile, Alabama, metropolitan areas with around 1 million residents altogether. The storm cast boats onto land, peeled away roofs and left hundreds of thousands without power.
More than 550,000 homes and businesses in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi have lost power, according to the tracking site poweroutage.us.
Residents along Bangladesh’s coast are being moved to safety as one of the strongest cyclones in years strikes the region. Millions of people had to be evacuated from low-lying regions along the Bay of Bengal on May 19. But plans are complicated by the coronavirus precautions. Maintaining social distancing is nearly impossible.
On May 14, Typhoon Vongfong slammed the Philippines with strong winds and heavy rains, destroying the city of San Policarpo in the eastern province of Samar. At least five people died and more than 91,000 people were forced to leave their homes. Typhoons are not unusual in the Philippines at this time of year. But the COVID-19 outbreak lockdown measures are exacerbating the situation.
Hurricane, typhoon, and cyclone are actually three names for the same phenomenon. Along the North American coast they are called hurricanes, in East and Southeast Asia they are called typhoons, and near India and Australia they are called cyclones. But despite the different names, they develop in the same way.
Tropical storms develop over oceans when the water temperature is at least 26 degrees Celsius (79 degrees Fahrenheit). As the warm water evaporates and condenses, the air around it heats up and drags cooler air upwards, creating powerful winds.
The Earth’s rotation causes the air stream to move around the eye of the storm, which can be up to 50 kilometers wide. This area is nearly completely free of clouds and wind.
When a tropical storm hits a coastline, it becomes weaker due to the lack of warm water. In Australia, “Marcia” was soon downgraded to a category one storm, while “Lam” weakened after striking near Brisbane. Masses of water from the sea often cause the worst damage – as seen here in China after Typhoon Nanmadol in August 2011.
Hurricane Sandy was one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded over the Atlantic Ocean. It caused waves of up to 4 meters high, fires, power outages and broken dykes. Sandy arrived with winds at speeds of more than 145 kilometers per hour. Cuba, New York and New Jersey were particularly affected.
Tornadoes however, are non-tropical whirlwinds that can occur anywhere a storm is brewing. Local temperature differences force warm air upwards and cold air down, and a column of warm air rotates upwards at an increasing velocity. Tornadoes are usually only a maximum of 1 kilometer in diameter.
As the warm air rises, it forms a funnel, the main characteristic of a tornado. Inside the funnel, the speed of the air can be tremendous – up to 500 kilometers per hour. Tornadoes are the fastest whirlwind type of weather phenomenon.
A tornado can leave a trail of destruction several kilometers long. In the US Midwest, tornadoes occur several hundred times a year, as dry, cold air from the north hits damp, warm air from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s different in other countries – in Germany, for example, tornadoes occasionally occur along the coast.
By the afternoon, local authorities said that at least 377 people had been rescued from flooded areas. Additionally, authorities in Pensacola said 200 National Guard members would arrive on Thursday to help with rescue efforts. Officials also announced a three-day dusk-to-dawn curfew in Escambia County, which includes Pensacola.
By early afternoon, Sally had weakened into a tropical storm, with winds down to 110 kph. However, experts fear even more damage in the coming days, with hevay rain expected through Thursday.
Thousands more will likely need to flee rising waters in the coming days, said Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan.
“There are entire communities that we’re going to have to evacuate,” said Morgan. “It’s going to be a tremendous operation over the next several days.”
Read more: Could flooding be a cure for rising seas?
The governors of Mississippi and Alabama have also declared a state of emergency for their states.
“We are facing record flooding, perhaps even a historic high,” Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said in a press conference. “The higher the water rises, the higher the risk of loss of property and life.”
Sally is one of five tropical cyclones currently active in the Atlantic Ocean, a phenomenon that meteorologists say has only been registered once before, in September 1971.
At the end of August, Hurricane Laura caused severe damage in the US, killing 14 people in Louisiana and Texas.
US President Donald Trump has compared Hurricane Sally to Hurricane Laura, but said the storm was “under control.”
Laura made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane in the early hours of Thursday morning in the small town of Cameron, Louisiana. It was packing winds of up to 241 kph (150 mph), making it one of the most powerful storms on record in the US. Hours later it was downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane, but continued to lash the coast with heavy rain and winds.
The storm’s first fatality was a 14-year-old girl who died when a tree fell on her house in the Louisiana city of Leesville. The state’s governor, John Bel Edwards, appealed to residents to stay home, and warned the death toll could rise.
The hurricane ripped right through Lake Charles, a Louisiana city of around 80,000 people. It gutted buildings, toppled street signs and flooded roads.
The wind also blew out the windows of the city’s 22-floor Capital One Tower, and brought down a controversial statue of a Confederate general that had stood outside the Lake Charles court house since 1915.
Lake Charles resident Chris Johnson surveys the damage at his home. He decided to stay put as the hurricane passed through. Brett Geymann, who lives just north of the city, said the hurricane sounded like the roar of a jet engine. “It looks like 1,000 tornadoes went through here. It’s just destruction everywhere,” he told The Associated Press. “There are houses that are totally gone.”
More than 700,000 homes and businesses in Louisiana and Texas were without power early Thursday, and local utilities in the storm’s path warned those numbers would rise as Laura advanced inland. The hurricane’s arrival also led to the closure of ports and forced oil rigs and refineries in the US Gulf to shut down production.
The National Hurricane Center had predicted that Laura would bring an “unsurvivable storm surge and destructive waves,” that could penetrate more than 60km inland. While the worst projections didn’t appear to materialize, the NHC warned high water levels would continue to surge along the Gulf Coast for several hours as Laura moved north.
Hundreds of thousands of people were ordered to evacuate from parts of Texas and Louisiana. Many booked into hotels inland, or slept in their cars, with officials reluctant to open large shelters that could lead to the coronavirus spreading. Texas Governor Greg Abbott had warned that Laura’s power was “unprecedented” and told citizens to “get out of harm’s way.”
Laura reached the US after causing devastating flooding and landslides in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, killing at least 23 people. It is the 12th named storm in the Atlantic so far this year, and the National Hurricane Center has predicted there may be as many as 25 before the storm season ends in November.
A controversial Confederate statue in Louisiana came down after Laura swept through. The South’s Defenders Memorial Monument in Lake Charles, Louisiana was toppled by the hurricane on Thursday. Just two weeks ago, local authorities had voted to keep the Confederate monument after protesters asked for it to be removed.
At least 14 people in the US have been reported dead after Laura swept through Texas and Louisiana. Over half of the deaths were due to carbon monoxide poisoning caused by the misuse of power generators indoors. At least four other people were killed by falling trees, and one individual died after his boat sank in the storm.
kp/sms (AFP, AP)