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One Year Later, Lessons Learned from Hurricane Sally

One year ago, Hurricane Sally made an early morning landfall in Gulf Shores, Alabama near the Florida border.

In Escambia County, three people died as a result of the storm, which also caused millions of dollars in damage and crippled the Pensacola Bay Bridge for months.

On this first anniversary, WUWF is looking back at the storm’s impact and some lessons learned.

For us, the story of Sally begins a few days before its Wednesday, Sept. 16 landfall, as it emerged in the central Gulf of Mexico as a meandering Tropical Storm, whose intensity was kept in check by a northwesterly sheer.

“Sally is moving very slowly and those rain bands are going to be frequent,” said Meteorologist Ray Hawthorne from the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network, in his Monday morning forecast – two days out.

“And, those rain bands are likely to contain tropical storm force winds, with an excess of 40-50 mph and perhaps a few gusts higher than that right along the immediate beachfront,” he continued.

Although the forecast put the Panhandle on the east or “dirty” side of the storm, with more than 15 inches of rain expected, Sally was projected to make landfall somewhere between the Louisiana and Alabama Gulf coasts, more than 100 miles away.

However, by midday on that same Monday, Tropical Storm Sally intensified into a hurricane and was drifting a little more eastward, which quickly triggered evacuation orders in Escambia County by late afternoon - about 36 hours out.

“You know, Sally kind of caught a lot of us off-guard, with intensity and track and we don’t take those things for granted anymore,” acknowledged Eric Gilmore, Escambia County public safety director.

Eric Gilmore at a press conference at the EOC alerting residents about Hurricane Sally.

He says lesson one is to not get complacent in regards to a storm’s “uncertainty” cone.

“Sally has made us more weather aware that those models aren’t 100%, and that anything is possible and we want to make sure we’re the best prepared we can be,” he said. “I don’t want to ever tell the public “we just didn’t know or we just didn’t have time, because that’s no excuse.”

Another lesson learned is to be more proactive, particularly when a storm threatens heading into the weekend. He says such was the case with Hurricane Ida that made landfall in Louisiana just a few weeks ago.

“Being gun-shy after going through Sally, we wanted to make darn sure, several days before landfall, that we had our ducks in a row and had our trigger points identified. And, even though it was still a tropical storm, we were planning for major hurricane.

Getting back to Hurricane Sally, the slow-moving storm - with its 20-plus inches of rain and 2-4 foot storm surge - made landfall in nearby Gulf Shores. Former County Administrator Janice Gilley announced the storm’s arrival.

“As a result, Escambia County was on the eastern side of that storm, which means we have now experienced massive flooding due to the historic rainfall,” she stated in their first post-storm news conference.

Gilley was followed at the podium by Jason Rogers, then Escambia’s public safety director, who outlined the initial response involving residents stranded in about 300 flooded homes.

“We are undergoing swift-water and still-water rescue operations and have engaged the Florida National Guard with high-water rescue vehicles,” Rogers said. “And, we have embedded emergency services personnel in those vehicles to help assist with those rescues.”

“That was the most harrowing part of the storm, getting out in the floodwaters and pulling people from their homes, from the flood waters and getting them out of harm’s way and to safety,” recalled Gilmore.

In the county’s review of Sally, the public safety director says they learned something new from the Weather Service in Mobile about the extent and location of the local flooding as storm surge from the south converged with a lot of rainfall draining from the north.

“Knowing the hydrology now and knowing those things about a storm, the storm surge coming in, the rain, the deluge trying to get out, and then meeting in the middle somewhere gave us these higher water values,” Gilmore explained.

Such factors they now take into consideration include what rain values are we going to get, the timing of the storm surge, where they think those converging waters are going to stack.”

That means, in addition to Zone A evacuations of Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key, the county would also consider evacuation orders in low-lying areas like Innerarity Point and around Blue Angel Parkway.

The damage from Hurricane Sally was extensive. Combined, flooding, storm surge and strong wind resulted in nearly $30 million in damage in Escambia County, with more than 17-hundred structures damaged, over 600 of those suffering major damage and 44 destroyed.

Additionally, the new Pensacola Bay Bridge suffered significant damage after it was struck by construction barges that broke loose during Hurricane Sally.

“We had no idea about the magnitude of barges that were scattered everywhere, but we did know of two,” Gilmore recounted. “And, there was a Highway Patrolman out there with his video, streaming live, showing one of the barges headed toward the I-10 Bridge.”

The new bay bridge, which is owned by the state, was closed for repairs and traffic was detoured to the Garcon Point Bridge and Highway 87 for more than 8 months. Liability claims against bridge contractor Skanska are currently being litigated.

Damage to the bridge and Sally’s landfall on the same date, near the same place, are reminiscent of devastating Hurricane Ivan in 2004. But, when it comes to preparedness, Gilmore reiterates that every storm is different.

“One storm might be a fast mover and we get some rain, but not a lot of rain, but a lot of wind and a lot of tornadoes,” said Gilmore, pointing out that other storms might be “slow-draggers” with a lot of rain and little wind.

“It all depends on how it interacts with the coast, how fast it moves in, how tight the core is.”

Looking ahead, Escambia County Public Safety Director Eric Gilmore reminds residents to keep their guard up, particularly, as the region continues to get heavy rain from what was Hurricane Nicholas and forecasters monitor three tropical waves, with over two months to go in 2021.

“So, far this season, we’ve dodged everything, but as we’ve seen these storms are spinning up quick and intensifying quick, and it doesn’t take but one to ruin your day, so still remain vigilant,” he said, reminding that hurricane season is six months long and won’t end until Nov. 30.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.