Georgia braces for possible flooding from downgraded Sally

FEMA Transportation Specialist, Vanessa Williams (left) at the FEMA Regional Response Coordination Center (RRCC) in DeKalb County that was actively monitoring Hurricane Sally on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 as the hurricane battered Pensacola, Florida. The federal center was moving and staging resources into place ready to assist those affected by the storm. Many of the workers are working remotely because of the COVID pandemic, but there were also a significant number at the center socially distanced and masked. More than 2 feet of rain was recorded near Naval Air Station Pensacola, and nearly 3 feet of water covered streets in downtown Pensacola, the National Weather Service reported. Escambia County Fire personnel are reportedly engaged in water rescues at a Pensacola apartment complex. A crane collapsed on the city’s three-mile bridge during the height of the storm. Officials later said a portion of the bridge may be missing. After dumping rain on the coast Wednesday, Sally was forecast to bring heavy downpours to parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas later in the week. Stacy Stewart, a senior specialist with the National Hurricane Center, said the Category 2 hurricane might make history for rainfall.  (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
FEMA Transportation Specialist, Vanessa Williams (left) at the FEMA Regional Response Coordination Center (RRCC) in DeKalb County that was actively monitoring Hurricane Sally on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 as the hurricane battered Pensacola, Florida. The federal center was moving and staging resources into place ready to assist those affected by the storm. Many of the workers are working remotely because of the COVID pandemic, but there were also a significant number at the center socially distanced and masked. More than 2 feet of rain was recorded near Naval Air Station Pensacola, and nearly 3 feet of water covered streets in downtown Pensacola, the National Weather Service reported. Escambia County Fire personnel are reportedly engaged in water rescues at a Pensacola apartment complex. A crane collapsed on the city’s three-mile bridge during the height of the storm. Officials later said a portion of the bridge may be missing. After dumping rain on the coast Wednesday, Sally was forecast to bring heavy downpours to parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas later in the week. Stacy Stewart, a senior specialist with the National Hurricane Center, said the Category 2 hurricane might make history for rainfall. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

After making landfall near Gulf Shores, Alabama on Wednesday with historic flooding along the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Sally was downgraded, but the tropical storm still carried the threat of flooding as it headed toward Georgia overnight.

The slow moving storm traveling under 10 miles per hour was expected to drop 3 to 6 inches of rain across much of the state with the hardest hit areas in west central and middle Georgia getting up to 8 inches, said Steve Nelson, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Peachtree City.

With much of the rain expected in some areas overnight Wednesday, the full extent of possible flooding and other damage wouldn’t be visible until Thursday morning. While the amount of expected rainfall was consistent with earlier forecasts, Nelson said Wednesday afternoon the area of impact had shifted slightly to the south.

 The FEMA Regional Response Coordination Center (RRCC) in DeKalb County was actively monitoring Hurricane Sally on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 as the hurricane battered Pensacola, Florida. The federal center was moving and staging resources into place ready to assist those affected by the storm. Many of the workers are working remotely because of the COVID pandemic, but there were also a significant number at the center socially distanced and masked. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
The FEMA Regional Response Coordination Center (RRCC) in DeKalb County was actively monitoring Hurricane Sally on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 as the hurricane battered Pensacola, Florida. The federal center was moving and staging resources into place ready to assist those affected by the storm. Many of the workers are working remotely because of the COVID pandemic, but there were also a significant number at the center socially distanced and masked. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

After moving in just south of Atlanta, heavy rain from the storm was predicted to move northeast just after midnight to the middle part of the state before moving toward Augusta by mid-morning Thursday. The rain was expected to taper off by midday and clear out entirely by Thursday evening.

Some parts of the state were under a wind advisory, a flash flood watch was in effect for most of North Georgia, and state officials and local utilities were on high alert for tornadoes and downed trees that could lead to widespread power outages.

09/16/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Georgia Department of Transportation employees clean storm drains along Interstate-75 in anticipation of heavy rains from Hurricane Sally in Atlanta, Wednesday, September 16, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
09/16/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Georgia Department of Transportation employees clean storm drains along Interstate-75 in anticipation of heavy rains from Hurricane Sally in Atlanta, Wednesday, September 16, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Ahead of the heavy rains, state Department of Transportation crews were out clearing drains along metro Atlanta interstates and major roads. Brookhaven police closed the Peachtree Creek Greenway path. Albany State University moved all classes online Thursday. Public schools in the county closed early Wednesday for possible severe weather.

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Georgia EMCs monitored weather conditions on Wednesday, putting all emergency personnel on standby and getting trucks and extra equipment ready to deploy. “Winds, heavy rain and flooding can blow electric poles and structures to the ground and knock trees on power lines, so the EMCs are watching developments closely for any potential damage from the storm,” said spokeswoman Terri Statham.

Glen Sachtleben, deputy response division director of FEMA, said staff members had been working since early Tuesday morning to make sure Alabama, Mississippi and Florida were also receiving any support they needed. The Georgia division of the state agency was also encouraging residents to prepare for potential heavy rain.

National forecasters had predicted an above normal hurricane season for 2020 — with about 19 to 25 named storms. Sally is the 18th named storm of the season. Still some coastal residents said they weren’t prepared for how rapidly Hurricane Sally shifted in both its direction and intensity.

Marshall Shepherd, director of the Atmospheric Sciences program at the University of Georgia said rapid changes in storms are likely the new normal. “In an era of climate change, people in coastal communities are going to have move beyond the idea of being surprised or angered by rapidly intensifying storms," Shepherd said. “We have to shift the mindset to that being the new norm.”

Scientists point to climate change as a factor that is making hurricanes wetter and some studies have linked climate change to slower moving storms. Add that to an increase in development and challenges of stormwater drainage and the stage is set for rampant flooding, Shepherd said.“Not only are we seeing a generation of more intense hurricanes, we are seeing more intense rain in general. Our flooding will be on the uptick because we have an infrastructure that is not designed for this,” Shepherd said.

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Late Wednesday, Jennifer Pipa, CEO of Georgia Red Cross prepared to drive to the Florida Panhandle where shelters had been opened several days before Hurricane Sally made landfall. The agency has opened more shelters with lower capacity to remain in accordance with health guidelines on social distancing for COVID-19, she said.

In Georgia, the Red Cross focused efforts on counties in the southern part of the state that historically flood during these type of events, Pipa said. “We knew initially this year with the forecast it was going to be a fairly active hurricane season. It is challenging but we are so lucky the American public believes in what we do,” she said.