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Powerful, drenching Sally makes landfall as Category 2 hurricane, batters Gulf Coast: 'It's just a nightmare'

PENSACOLA, Fla. – Hurricane Sally's winds ratcheted down to tropical storm strength  after crashing ashore as a Category 2 hurricane Wednesday, hammering a swath of the Gulf Coast with deluging rain and 105-mph winds.

Sally made landfall before dawn in Gulf Shores, Alabama, about 30 miles from the Florida line. Meandering inland at 3 mph, the storm toppled trees and power lines, battered homes and businesses. Flooding from its unrelenting rains turned streets into rivers, sweeping up cars and washing out bridges.

More than 550,000 homes and businesses were without power in Alabama, Florida and Louisiana. Those numbers were likely to rise as Sally moved deeper inland.

Sally picked up a bit of speed as it rolled over land at 5 mph Wednesday afternoon. More than 2 feet of rain was measured near Naval Air Station Pensacola – one spotter reported 30 inches, the National Weather Service in Mobile/Pensacola said.

And it was still raining.

"The big issue is the forward speed of the system," said AccuWeather Meteorologist Isaac Longley. "When tropical systems are barely moving, that's when you deal with big-time issues. We are going to see crazy high rainfall across a good portion of the Southeast."

Live updates: Pensacola gets 30 inches of rain; 'catastrophic flooding is unfolding' in Alabama, Florida

In Alabama, the Gulf Shores State Park Pier was "cut in half," the weather service said, posting a photo of the battered pier on social media. Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said 50 to 60 people were rescued and staying in makeshift shelters. Others were safe in their homes and will be rescued when the water recedes, he said.

In Florida, a section of the newly built Three Mile Bridge linking Pensacola to the beach community of Gulf Breeze was washed out. Downtown Pensacola streets were flooded and mostly deserted.

In Escambia County, which includes Pensacola, Public Safety Director Jason Rogers said high-water rescue vehicles and swift water rescue teams responded to numerous calls for help.

"We are making rescues right now," Rogers said.

It may not get better soon. Sheriff David Morgan said thousands of county residents will need to be evacuated from rising water in the coming days.

Pensacola resident Kenneth McElroy said he woke up at 4 a.m. to screaming winds and green flashes of light. Then a massive tree fell into his living room – and another tree fell on his car before he could escape.

McElroy said that despite being homeless in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, he was optimistic things would get better.

“At least everybody is accounted for," he said. "A pandemic and a hurricane; what’s next? Sunny days and good times."

In Walton County, 80 miles east of Pensacola, the sheriff's office posted photos on social media of a washed-out bridge. And a plea. 

"Stay home. Stay safe. Call us if you need us," the tweet said.

Sally was forecast through Wednesday to produce additional rainfall totals of 8 to 12 inches with localized higher amounts possible along the central Gulf Coast from west of Tallahassee, Florida, to Mobile Bay, Alabama, the weather service said. The storm was expected to move inland across southeastern Alabama on Wednesday night, dumping "life-threatening" rainfall over portions of the Gulf Coast, Florida Panhandle and southeastern Alabama.

A tornado watch was issued for parts of Alabama, Florida and Georgia until Wednesday evening.

Rain totals of 10 to 20 inches are likely but could balloon to 35 inches in some areas. Heavy rainfall was forecast into Thursday over portions of central and southern Georgia, the weather service said. 

“It’s not common that you start measuring rainfall in feet,” said weather service forecaster David Eversole in Mobile, Alabama. “It just keeps pounding and pounding and pounding the area with tropical rain and just powerful winds. It’s just a nightmare.”

There's only one name left on the 2020 list of hurricane names. Next up: The Greek alphabet.

Sally could produce up to 7 feet of storm surge across Alabama's coastline from the Mississippi border to the Florida border, forecasters said. The storm could dump up to a foot of rain along pockets of southeastern Mississippi, southern and central Alabama, northern Georgia and the western Carolinas.

Sally is forecast to turn northeastward and move across the Southeast through Friday. Southern and central Alabama to central Georgia could see 4 to 8 inches of rain and isolated maximum amounts of 12 inches.

"Significant flash and urban flooding is likely, as well as widespread minor to moderate flooding on some rivers," the weather service said.

Western South Carolina into western and central North Carolina can expect up to 4 to 6 inches and isolated maximum amounts of 9 inches. Southeast Virginia could get 2 to 5 inches and isolated maximum amounts of 7 inches. 

Sally was the eighth named storm to make landfall in the continental USA this year – the most through Sept. 16 in recorded history, surpassing the seven storms of 1916, Colorado State University meteorologist Philip Klotzbach said. The record for most continental U.S. landfalls in a single Atlantic season is nine, also set in 1916.

Bacon reported from Arlington, Virginia.

Contributing: Jim Little, Joe Jacquez and Jonathan Tully, Pensacola News Journal; Sarah Ann Dueñas and Nate Chute, Montgomery Advertiser; The Associated Press