Hurricane Sally reached Category 2 strength Monday afternoon and by the evening its outer bands began lashing Florida’s Panhandle as it neared the U.S. Gulf coast.
Forecasters warned the storm’s real danger could be in devastating flooding.
The latest forecast showed Sally could bring up to 9 feet of storm surge and 2 feet of rain in some spots in Louisiana, but Sally’s impact will be felt from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle.
Monday evening, the eastern coast of Louisiana, as well as the entire coast of Mississippi and Alabama, were under hurricane warnings, and the western coast of the Florida Panhandle was under a tropical storm warning.
As of 11 p.m., the National Hurricane Center said the storm was moving west-northwest at 3 mph and was about 90 miles east of the mouth of the Mississippi River. Its maximum sustained winds were 100 mph, with higher gusts and tropical-storm-force winds extended up to 125 miles from the center. Hurricane-force winds extended up to 45 miles from the center.
On Monday evening, Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.
Sally was forecast to move over the north-central Gulf of Mexico, approach southeastern Louisiana Monday afternoon, and make landfall somewhere in the hurricane warning area from Morgan City, La., to the Mississippi/Alabama border. That area includes metropolitan New Orleans.
The storm was then expected to move slowly north-northeastward through Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia through Friday while weakening.
However, forecasters cautioned it was still too early to determine where exactly Sally will make landfall because of uncertainty surrounding the timing and location of Sally’s northward turn near the central Gulf Coast.
“Users should not focus on the details of the official forecast track, since NHC’s average forecast error at 48 hours is around 80 miles, and dangerous storm surge, rainfall and wind hazards will extend well away from the center,” forecasters wrote.
Forecasters say extremely dangerous and life-threatening storm surge conditions are possible, particularly in the area from Port Fourchon, La., to the Alabama/Florida border. Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Maurepas and Lake Borgne and Mobile Bay are all under a storm surge warning.
The mouth of the Mississippi River to Ocean Springs, Miss., could see the worst of the storm surge — up to 9 feet, the hurricane center said. Some areas could see two feet of rain, a feature of such a big, slow storm that would be able to draw up extra moisture from the warm Gulf and dump it on land, like Hurricane Harvey.
“Since Sally is forecast to be moving very slowly around the time of landfall a slower rate of weakening is indicated since a large portion of the circulation will remain over water for some time,” forecasters wrote.
Sally could also continue producing flash flooding across central and northern Florida and prolong existing minor river flooding across west-central Florida through Monday, according to the hurricane center. Flooding impacts are expected to spread farther across the Southeast through the week.
Miami Herald staff writer Carli Teproff contributed to this report.