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Hurricane Sally will begin hammering the U.S. Gulf Coast with flooding rains late Sept. 14, before making landfall between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., and potentially causing as much as $3 billion in losses and damage.
Sally, which has sparked evacuations from some offshore energy platforms, could reach the coast with winds of 90 mph, making it a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. The National Hurricane Center estimate was revised up from 80 mph predicted earlier. Landfall will be sometime in the morning or afternoon of Sept. 15.
The U.S. has been pummeled by natural disasters this year, with wildfires devastating the West, storms causing billions of dollars of damage in the East and along the Gulf Coast, and a derecho ripping through the Midwest earlier this summer. Sally is one of five named systems currently in the Atlantic, the first time that has happened since 1971, said Jim Rouiller, lead meteorologist with the Energy Weather Group. With the emergence of Tropical Storm Vicky, the basin has now produced 20 storms, the second most on record. Only 2005 had more storms, with 28.
“We have everything from fires to hurricanes and everything in between,” said Rouiller.
11 AM CDT UPDATE: NOAA Hurricane Hunter aircraft finds that #Sally has strengthened into a hurricane with 85 mph max sustained winds. Special advisory to follow shortly. https://t.co/tW4KeFW0gB pic.twitter.com/elyQPCgELT— National Hurricane Center (@NHC_Atlantic) September 14, 2020
A larger weather system over the U.S. is making an exact track difficult to forecast, but Sally could be the second hurricane since late August to hit Louisiana, which is still recovering from Hurricane Laura.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared an emergency, and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued a similar warning for the city. The storm could raise ocean levels 7 to 11 feet at the mouth of the Mississippi River, which could overtop some levees.
The storm could potentially lead to $2 billion to $3 billion in damage and losses, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler with Enki Research. Damage estimates have fluctuated because Sally’s forecast intensity and track have shifted several times in the last few days. The price tag could rise even more if Sally gets stronger or takes more time moving through the area, or if water overwhelms flood control systems in New Orleans.
Sally will sweep the eastern edge of the offshore production area, probably halting oil and natural gas drilling for a short time and adding further disruption to the industry. Hurricanes Marco and Laura, as well as Tropical Storm Cristobal, all disrupted work across the Gulf this season.
Chevron Corp. said Sept. 12 it’s evacuating workers and shutting in production at its Blind Faith and Petronius platforms, while Royal Dutch Shell Plc has curtailed operations at three Gulf platforms. The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port has suspended operations at the Marine Terminal as Tropical Storm Sally approaches in the Gulf of Mexico, according to its website.
Mississippi River bar pilots also halted operations Sept. 13. Phillips 66 has begun a shutdown of the Alliance refinery, the company said in a statement.
Along with its storm surge, which can vary due to tides and exactly where the storm makes landfall, Sally could bring 2 to 3 feet of rain in some places, causing massive flooding, Rouiller said. If Sally continues to slow, the potential impact could be worse, and refineries may be down for longer.
“I am worried it is going to slow up and intensify,” Rouiller said. “Sally may become known for the severe flooding.”
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The floods could impact cotton, corn and peanut crops through the region, though widespread damage isn’t expected, said Don Keeney, a meteorologist with commercial forecaster Maxar.
“I don’t think we are going to see any massive damage, but there will be some localized flood damage right along the path,” Keeney said. “I don’t think it will have much of an impact on the Delta.”
Seven storms have hit the U.S. in 2020, including Laura, which devastated southwest Louisiana, and Hurricane Isaias, which temporarily knocked out power to millions in the Northeast.
In addition to Sally, Hurricane Paulette is battering Bermuda. The other storms — Rene, Teddy and Vicky — won’t be an immediate threat to land.
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