Radar image at 6:32 a.m. EDT Wednesday, September 16, 2020, as Hurricane Sally was making landfall near Gulf Shores, Alabama. (Image credit: Mark Nissenbaum/Florida State University)

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.

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.

Figure 1. Estimated three-day rainfall amounts from Sally ending at 9 a.m. CDT Wednesday, September 16. The white areas are rainfall amounts in excess of 20 inches. (Image credit: NWS)

Rains of over two feet, storm surge over five, and hurricane-force winds

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 of
Sally’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 poweroutage.us. 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.

Figure 2. Wind direction matters! With Pensacola’s location (left) on the right side of Sally’s eye, where onshore winds blew, water levels there hit their third-highest level on record. In Mobile, Alabama (right), winds blew offshore, driving a negative storm surge of about five feet. (Image credit: NWS)

Third-highest storm surge on record in Pensacola, Florida

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; and
4.71 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; and
2.7 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.

Figure 3. Rainfall forecast for the three days ending at 7 a.m. CDT September 19. Sally is predicted to dump additional rains of six to ten inches over portions of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. (Image credit: NOAA/NHC)

Additional heavy rain predicted for 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.

Sally is record-earliest eighth named storm to make U.S. landfall, continuing blistering pace of 2020 hurricane season. Click To Tweet

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); and
Georgia: 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.

Figure 4. GeoColor visible satellite image of Sally as of 9:10 a.m. EDT Wednesday, September 16. (Image credit: RAMMB/CIRA/Colorado State University)

Sally is record-earliest eighth named storm of a season to hit U.S.

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:

  • Hurricane Laura in southwest Louisiana on August 27 (150 mph winds, 33 deaths, $10 billion in damage);
  • Tropical Storm Marco in southeast Louisiana on August 24 (40 mph winds, over $2 million in damage to the U.S., and over $20 million in Mexico and Costa Rica);
  • Hurricane Isaias near Wilmington, North Carolina, on August 3 (85 mph winds, over $5 billion in damage to the continental U.S.);
  • Hurricane Hanna in South Texas on July 25 (90 mph winds, $775 million in damage to the U.S. and $100 million to Mexico);
  • Tropical Storm Fay in New Jersey on July 10 (50 mph winds, six deaths, $350 million in damage);
  • Tropical Storm Cristobal in Louisiana on June 7 (50 mph winds, one death, $325 million in damage); and
  • Tropical Storm Bertha in South Carolina on May 27 (50 mph winds, $200 million in damage).

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

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...

52 replies on “Slow-moving Hurricane Sally gives coastal Alabama prolonged winds and storm surge”

  1. Japan Meteorological Agency
    Tropical Cyclone Advisory #15 – 9:00 AM JST September 17 2020
    South China Sea

    At 0:00 AM UTC, Tropical Storm Noul (994 hPa) located at 14.4N 114.0E has 10 minute sustained winds of 45 knots with gusts of 65 knots. The cyclone is reported as moving west northwest at 12 knots.

    Gale Force Winds
    180 nm from the center

    Dvorak Intensity: T2.5

    Forecast and Intensity
    24 HRS: 15.8N 109.3E – 45 knots (CAT 1/Tropical Storm) South China Sea
    48 HRS: 16.4N 103.0E – Tropical Depression over land Thailand

  2. Japan Meteorological Agency
    Tropical Cyclone Advisory #13 – 3:00 AM JST September 17 2020
    South China Sea

    At 18:00 PM UTC, Tropical Storm Noul (994 hPa) located at 13.7N 114.2E has 10 minute sustained winds of 45 knots with gusts of 65 knots. The cyclone is reported as moving west at 12 knots.

    Gale Force Winds
    90 nm from the center

    Dvorak Intensity: T2.5

    Forecast and Intensity
    24 HRS: 15.6N 110.0E – 50 knots (CAT 2/Severe Tropical Storm) South China Sea
    48 HRS: 16.5N 104.0E – Tropical Depression over land Thailand

  3. Thanks for the information and the update, its always fascinating reading.
    Still hoping that everybody along the north Gulf coast is safe and well out of harms way.

    Here in The Mediterranean area, we are having a “Medicane,” which has formed below Sicily and is heading for the southern area of Greece, this will bring winds of over 100 MPH, (160 KPH,) and may be historical in its formation with a possible eye forming in the storm.
    Needless to say nobody has any experience of this kind of storm and damage may be considerable.
    More later if I can find information.

      1. Hey dude…When a certain moron stops having his very unsafe indoor Caronapaloozer Magaat Hatter Superspreading Events within 80 miles and 200 miles of my house (bookended), within 12 hours, potentially killing my friends, family and neighbors intentionally, and further causing death and destruction like a human hurricane come alive.

        Then I will lay off. You too should be upset at the covid superspreader. Every American should speak up. The Dakota’s are now a covid-19 hotspot, there are direct connections when tens of thousands of maskless morons congregate repeatedly, and politicians continue to lie. Watch NV, and AZ blow up all over again (Reno, Vegas, Phoenix). The beds will fill again. Higher death counts sure to follow.

      2. Sorry dude, I am just trying to sit on my patio in the US Southwest, and type on a weather blog (because it finally dropped below triple digit temps for the very first time in months, during the 7th month of my covid-19 quarantine), and am actually having a hard time seeing the screen (and enjoying the much cooler 100 degree weather), due to all this choking smoke and sooty particulate matter in the air from someones poorly managed still burning Federal Forests!

        Maybe he should use some of that 250K a plate CA scampaign fundraising to buy himself a much bigger rake, and take better care of those explosive trees!

  4. Well,,,looks like here we go again, on the Gulf Coast,,90L tracks a mess,,had planned on moving a sailboat back to her home mooring this weekend,,looks like not a good idea,,,one local weather source in Houston area says this weekends front will provide some better clues on whats next….

    1. There is another whole section of that same 3 mile (was new before Sally and the 2 barge mishaps), Pensecola Bridge, that is now completely missing, due to a different barge striking it. Barges will not hold by anchoring alone in massive storms. Just how simple is that to understand? Why not just drop multi-ton concrete anchoring points in gulf rivers and bays that massive barges and ships could moor to. Save America’s infrastructure…be PROACTIVE, NOT JUST REACTIVE.

      Instead, billions spent fixing what shouldn’t be broken every year.

    1. Sadly none of it is off topic…Eventually those waterlogged vehicles will be shipped to a refurbishing facillity as is usual right here in our southwestern deserts (probably to 1 of our 3 very large Phoenix or 4 Tucson Auction houses offering acres and acres of space to eventually dry out, then be sold to some unsuspecting poor sucker).

      There are tons of connected things out there. Weather does not happen in a vaccuum. Science knows…

      1. Emu’s and Ostrich’s both kill themselves when they bury their heads in the sand, and pretend things are disconnected. American voters like to do the very same activity, they cheer like lemmings when Billions are spent on things that were never appropriated for by Congress (FEMA FUNDS WERE APPROPRIATED BY CONGRESS FOR REAL PEOPLE ARE AFFECTED FEDERAL EMERGENCIES, like Hurricane Sally), not a vanity project with a “Look at how great I am” Trump plaque attached.

  5. Thank You Dr. Masters………..One of the TWC forecasters mentioned last evening during a segment as to the very high atmospheric moisture content surrounding Sally and mentioned, in a quick statement, as to warming world with more water vapor. Referencing what you have noted over the years as to all the research papers over the past few decades noting how tropical storms are getting wetter and dumping more rain (in all the tropical basins). Arguably, and we have seen it with our own eyes the past several years, the Gulf of Mexico is a very “productive” region in terms of very wet tropical storms (including storms like Harvey and Sally – any many others) as well as the “no-name” pre-season or early season lows that have dumped enormous amounts of rain into Louisiana. In addition to the WV issues in the Gomex, the related issue is the trajectory of these storms, in off the Gulf, and the training bands that set-up when these Gulf storms head inland.

  6. Sally is still selling seashells down by the sea shore. I am not making light of The poor Gulf Coasters going through absolute heck today, just being a realist about the lack of real response by our simpleton moron inhabiting the Oval Office, and his moronic statements.

    Notice the lack of any mere mention of FEMA lately? Because he spent illegally, 500 BILLION DOLLARS of FEMA FUNDS on a few miles of wall on the southern border. Just before a really big Atlantic Hurricane season.

    Maybe he will donate a couple of his big scampaign fundraisers for Gulf Coasters…Just don’t hold your breath folks waiting for delivery…He may have paper towels to throw though.

    May all recover quickly, and losses be all minor. Just sick of our absofreakingloutely lousy leadership and the constant lies and manipulations…the losses of life are beyond comprehension with the dunce at the helm. He’s not a dummy, he just plays one. Fool us once…If you vote for that again folks, then you get exactly what you deserve in the next go around…and all the laughs then, that will go with it.

      1. Jeff’s blogs have addressed and always will cover the response and recovery from weather disasters. The misappropriation of funding for FEMA is a valid topic, just as issues with political appointments to NHC were valid topics in years past.

      2. Not at all, just interested in weather and not politics. During my 92 years of life I have been through many presidents Democrats and Republicans and they have never solved any of my problems. I worked until the age of 73 to allow myself the opportunity to support myself without government assistance and not allow anybody to convince me to vote for them. Politics is the dirtiest and most disgusting thing that I have experienced during my long life and that is why I prefer for it to stay away from this weather chat. If you want politics go ahead and go on the campaign trail with your favorite candidate which by the way are both worthless. I hope this answers your question.

    1. Thank You for saying that Femas broke, and don’t forget trump just threw trillions at the rich that was supposed to keep small business who employ the 99 percent thanks to his crooked bank friends- My god! The Republicans should be run out of office with Trump. The US poor is strapped with trillions more of wasted debt, not to mention we have a future where AI robots will take over military, teaching, medical weather reporting, driver, construction. and more. Hey, Does anyone know if AI robots will have to pay taxes, because Sophia became a citizen in Saudi Arabia, not to mention your kids might not have a job because social security got ripped off and dried up and your kids are taking turns taking care of mom and dad instead of working.

    2. Real proof that vanity & ego building Trump border walls are absolutely worthless as long as there is a ladder store nearby…Or some lumber! And willing driven participants…The Billions belonged to FEMA.


      Good news though, a year later…BP rounded up half of them today in Phoenix! But human ingenuity from ancient times (a ladder), beats tall fences easily. It is not politics if it is reality. Election year 11th hour stunt or not, every capture is a good thing.


  7. Thanks for the update! Looks like the state rainfall totals will be safe, based on the CoCoRaHs map. The largest totals (usually updated at 7am) are near 20 inches in the Pensacola area. They’re getting a lot more rain, but not 25″-like a lot. There are some places in AL with close to 20″ as well, but the rain is largely over there. Georgia is starting out too low (only ~2″ so far) and Sally’s motion is starting to make prolonged rain unlikely inland.

    So dangerous rain, but probably not a record. That said, I’m sure individual creeks will probably have record rises. Please listen to local authorities!

  8. If there is a big Trump election $250,000 a plate fundraiser scheduled anywhere near the gulf coast, like say Southern, FL…We can expect that extra large custom 747 to come flying in any moment now to give a mere 2 hrs. by motormouth TrumptyHUMP to say….”No worries, It will get drier soon!”

    Followed by….You should have raked your Gulf Waters.

      1. Windsmurf, I appreciate your ‘Off topic’ posts, directed at NW AZ…. We do not need reminders of enduring political agonies. I have followed Dr Master’s posts for years, and especially value the comments from folks who really follow the weather, which has become so fascinating during the past decades. I am 77, and believe that folks who comment here are about 99 per cent exceptionally intelligent, and so have deep political beliefs, especially now. This is not a place for anyone to find some weather-related excuse to rant and rage about anything. NW AZ please Permanently STOP your Off Topic abuses of Dr Master’s blog.

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