Hurricane Sally’s Slow Movement and Rapid Intensification Underscore Need to Adapt

Hurricane Sally finally slammed onshore along the Alabama-Florida border early yesterday morning after more than a day picking up moisture over the Gulf of Mexico. Surprisingly, the storm intensified just before making landfall, with wind speeds at 105 m.p.h. and it brought unimaginable quantities of rain – more than 30 inches in Pensacola, Florida plus a massive storm surge. Part of a major new bridge was destroyed after being slammed by a barge in Pensacola, highrise buildings were peeled apart, and the downtown of that city was largely submerged. Damage assessment is only just beginning. Even areas well inland in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia could see up to 20 inches of rain as the storm literally crawled north.

Why This Matters: Severe storms like hurricanes Sally, Dorian, and Harvey, but even thunderstorms, are becoming wetter, more intense, have longer staying power, and are harder to predict. We know this about the storms based on a growing body of evidence and science and thus we can begin to plan for them – because no matter what we do the curb emissions, our climate has changed, so we need to adapt. As Abrahm Lustgarten wrote in the NYT Magazine, “the gap between what the climate can destroy and what money can replace is growing.”

Hurricane Sally’s Wrath

The storm continued to move slowly even after landfall, turning streets into rivers as torrents of rain fell and strong winds persisted. As of this writing, according to USA Today, more than 500,000 homes and businesses across the Gulf Coast were without power. Water rescues were ongoing and hundreds had already occurred, and the Governor of Florida activated some National Guard troops to help in Pensacola. Roads are impassable in many areas, complicating the response. One local resident of Gulf Shores, Alabama told CNN that the city “Looks like a war zone…Lots of destruction, homes destroyed, roofs gone. I have not had any service, power or internet. Bad night.”  Another lifetime Gulf Shores resident told Reuters “No one expected it to be this bad…It’s because it stalled. If it had just passed through, we would’ve been fine.”

Slowed To A Crawl

Hurricane Sally at times slowed to moving around 2 m.p.h. — that is essentially stopped — a person walks faster than that.  The same thing happened with several recent hurricanes associated with huge damage — Hurricane Harvey that sat over Houston for days, and Hurricane Dorian sat over the Bahamas — causing huge amounts of destruction just from rain and flooding.  Climate scientists say that Atlantic hurricanes are increasingly likely to grind to a halt near the coast and stay there for hours.  According to Reuters, though the climate change connection is still being studied, Jim Kossin a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says there is evidence that Arctic warming weakens the winds that push a hurricane along its track inland or into the Atlantic away from land.

To Go Deeper:  Read the full interactive story about the future climate refugees in America by Abrahm Lustgarten in the NYT Magazine.  Here is a devastating excerpt:

“Policymakers, having left America unprepared for what’s next, now face brutal choices about which communities to save — often at exorbitant costs — and which to sacrifice. Their decisions will almost inevitably make the nation more divided, with those worst off relegated to a nightmare future in which they are left to fend for themselves. Nor will these disruptions wait for the worst environmental changes to occur. The wave begins when individual perception of risk starts to shift, when the environmental threat reaches past the least fortunate and rattles the physical and financial security of broader, wealthier parts of the population. It begins when even places like California’s suburbs are no longer safe.

It has already begun.”

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