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Hurricane Sally slams into Alabama and Florida

Hurricane Sally CNN
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Hurricane Sally makes landfill as Category 2 storm

Its crawling pace threatens catastrophic flooding

By Jason Hanna and Hollie Silverman, CNN

    (CNN) -- A Category 1 Hurricane Sally is pummeling southern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle after it crossed land Wednesday morning, prompting water rescues, sapping power, dropping trees and threatening catastrophic flooding as it crawls at an agonizingly slow pace.

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Water rescues were reported underway in both states Wednesday morning. That included in Gulf Shores, Alabama, where homes flooded and trees toppled onto roofs, city spokesman Grant Brown said.

Sally made landfall as a Category 2 storm near Gulf Shores around 4:45 a.m. CT with sustained winds of 105 mph. By 8 a.m. CT it was downgraded, 20 miles from Gulf Shores, with winds at 90 mph.

With Sally's slow pace -- generally 3 mph -- some areas already have collected more than 15 inches of rain and could receive up to 35 inches by storm's end.

Floodwaters have turned streets into rivers in Pensacola, Florida, images from the Associated Press show. Pieces of hazardous debris "have become too numerous to list," police there warned.

MAIN THREATS: INLAND FLOODING AND STORM SURGE

"Nothing is going to go away anytime soon," National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham told CNN. "The winds, the torrential rainfall, the slow movement and the storm surge -- this is a dangerous situation all around."

On Florida's Pensacola Beach, sounds of transformers exploding and metal scraping along the ground -- debris from torn roofs -- could be heard early Wednesday.

Power has been knocked out for more than 500,000 customers in Alabama and Florida alone, utility tracker PowerOutage.us reported.

The National Weather Service office in Mobile declared a flash flood emergency for "severe threat to human life & catastrophic damage from a flash flood."

"This is a LIFE-THREATENING SITUATION. SEEK HIGHER GROUND NOW!!" the NWS Mobile office tweeted.

Rainfall totals of 10 to 35 inches are possible across parts of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, from Mobile Bay to Tallahassee, forecasters say.

The storm's slow forward speed is expected to continue through Wednesday as it turns to the north and then northeast, taking with it strong winds and more flooding potential.

Central Alabama and central Georgia could eventually see 4 to 12 inches of rain, with significant flash flooding possible. Parts of the Carolinas could receive 4 to 9 inches of rain by later in the week.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered for much of the coast and low-lying areas from Mississippi to Florida, and shelters opened to accommodate evacuees.

People have been calling for help in both states

Water rescues were underway and more calls for help arriving in both states Wednesday morning, several local governments reported.

An undetermined number of rescues were underway in Florida's Escambia County, where Pensacola is, with the National Guard and sheriff's office personnel helping, the county said.

In Alabama's Baldwin County, people were calling 911 for help, but emergency workers couldn't immediately respond early Wednesday because conditions were unsafe, county emergency management deputy director Jenni Guerry said.

Damage and flooding in Alabama

In Alabama, the floor and walls on the 16th floor of a hotel on the northern rim of Mobile Bay groaned as Sally made its way ashore.

The building shook as if in the throes an extended, low-grade earthquake, and sturdy windows seemed poised to pop out, a CNN team there said.

In Orange Beach, Alabama, water flowed at least a foot deep along the exterior walls of tourist shops, video taken from a moving boat by the United Cajun Navy before sunrise Wednesday shows.

At the shore, a boat sat on its side not far from an upended refrigerator, according to the footage, posted to Facebook. Of another vessel standing upright on land, someone outside the frame says, "No idea where that boat came from."

On Dauphin Island, south of Mobile, "we've got trees down all over the place ... (and) electricity has been shut off to the entire island," Mayor Jeff Collier said Wednesday morning.

As wind and rain whipped before midnight, enormous trees already had been felled west of Mobile.

Workers in raincoats endured Sally's bands as they worked alongside a digger truck to move thick piles of branches at Campfire and Ponderosa drives, CNN affiliate WALA reported.

Similar scenes unfolded around the same time -- still about six hours before Sally came ashore -- in midtown Mobile and across Mobile Bay in Fairhope, Alabama.

Sally hit Alabama 16 years to the day after the state's last landfalling hurricane, the Category 3 Hurricane Ivan, struck.

Sally is the fourth hurricane to make landfall in the US this year -- the most by this point in a year since 2004. It also is the eighth named storm to make landfall in the US, the most by September 16 on record.

Businesses close and military bases restrict access

Businesses shut down ahead of the storm, with Walmart announcing 54 closures due to Sally, company spokesman Scott Pope told CNN on Tuesday.

Across the Gulf Coast, three military installations announced that only mission-essential personnel should report to work Wednesday.

The installations are the Naval Air Station Pensacola and Eglin Air Force Base in Pensacola, along with Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, home to the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, often called the "Hurricane Hunters."

Residents prepared for a serious storm

People began preparing for Sally over the weekend, filling sandbags, grabbing supplies and prepping their homes.

Merrill Warren of Summerdale, Alabama, which sits about 16 miles inland from the Gulf, told CNN he brought in furniture, purchased gas and other supplies, and got his generator ready for the storm.

On Tuesday night, he reported that heavy rains and winds of up to 39 mph had already hit inland. Warren was more concerned about the potential for increased rainfall and surges than anything else, he said.

"This isn't the first Category 1 Hurricane that I have been through. I have been there through Hurricane Nate and Tropical Storm Gordon," Warren said. "I'm more worried about the rain for this one ... The rain and storms surge are definitely going to be the bigger issue with a storm moving at 2 mph."

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