Hurricane Sally strengthens and threatens record rains in Alabama and Florida

Up to a 75cm of rainfall expected in parts of US Gulf Coast with 170kph winds

A strengthened Hurricane Sally pounded the Florida Panhandle and south Alabama with sideways rain, beach-covering storm surges, strong winds and power cuts.

Early on Wednesday, Sally was churning towards land at a slow pace that promised a drawn out drenching and possible record floods.

About 150,000 homes and businesses had lost electricity, according to the website. A curfew was imposed in the coastal Alabama city of Gulf Shores because of life-threatening conditions.

In the Panhandle's Escambia County, chief sheriff's deputy Chip Simmons promised to keep deputies out with residents as long as physically possible. The county includes Pensacola, one of the largest cities on the Gulf Coast.

“The sheriff’s office will be there until we can no longer safely be out there, and then and only then will we pull our deputies in,” Mr Simmons said at a briefing late on Tuesday. The storm appeared to be headed for New Orleans at the weekend.

“Obviously this shows what we’ve known for a long time with storms – they are unpredictable,” Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson IV said.

Sally rapidly strengthened as it approached land, quickly rising into a Category 2 storm, carrying winds at 168 kilometres per hour. It was about 100km south-southeast of Mobile, Alabama, and moving north-northeast at 4kph.

Landfall was expected on the northern Gulf Coast early on Wednesday. A National Hurricane Centre forecast map showed a possible landfall between Alabama's Mobile Bay and the Panhandle.

Sally is a rare storm that could make history, said Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the National Hurricane Centre.

“Sally has a characteristic that isn’t often seen and that’s a slow forward speed and that’s going to exacerbate the flooding,” Mr Rappaport said.

He likened the storm's slow progression to that of Hurricane Harvey, which struck Houston in 2017. Up to 76 centimetres of rain could fall in some areas, and “that would be record-setting in some locations”, Mr Rappaport said.

Although the hurricane had the Alabama and Florida coasts in its sights on Wednesday, its effects were felt all along the coast. Low-lying properties in south-east Louisiana were swamped by the surge. Water covered Mississippi beaches and parts of the motorway that runs parallel to them. Two large casino boats broke loose from a dock where they were carrying out construction work in Alabama.

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves urged people in the southern part of his state to prepare for a potential flash flooding.

As Sally’s outer bands reached the Gulf Coast, the manager of an alligator ranch in Moss Point, Mississippi, was hoping he would not have to see a repeat of what happened at the gator farm in 2005. That’s when about 250 alligators escaped their enclosures during Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge.

Gulf Coast Gator Ranch & Tours Manager Tim Parker said Sally has been a stressful storm because forecasters were predicting a storm surge of as much as 2.5m in the area. But he has felt some relief after seeing the surge predictions had gone down.

After dumping rain on the coast, Sally was forecast to bring heavy downpours to parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas later in the week.