Updated at 6:15 a.m. ET Wednesday
Hurricane Sally's eye made landfall Wednesday morning, bringing a perilous threat of floods to areas along the northern Gulf Coast, according to forecasters. The hurricane is crawling along at just 2 mph, giving its heavy rains even more potential impact. A tornado watch has also been issued.
"Because of that slow movement, we're going to see torrential rainfall, a dangerous amount of rainfall," National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said in an online briefing Tuesday morning.
Many communities in Sally's path will be drenched by 10 to 20 inches of rain, with some areas possibly seeing up to 30 inches.
"That's just a history-making amount of rain," Graham said.
The National Hurricane Center said the center of Sally's eye landed at Gulf Shores, Ala., about 4:45 a.m. local time (5:45 a.m. ET) as a Category 2 storm with maximum sustained winds of 105 mph.
Sally's projected landfall has shifted consistently toward the east; and as of Tuesday evening the hurricane warning area stretches from Bay St. Louis, Miss., to Navarre in the northwest Florida panhandle.
The center of the hurricane is forecast to move inland across southeastern Alabama Wednesday night and Thursday.
"This will be a PROLONGED event given the slow movement of Sally," the NHC said, warning of a life-threatening storm surge, strong winds and "significant likely historic flooding."
A large part of the coast is under a storm surge warning, from the New Orleans area to the western Florida Panhandle. Parts of Alabama and Florida are under a tornado watch until Wednesday at 7 a.m. ET.
Destructive storm surge and waves continue to impact the coastline this evening. Conditions should continue to deteriorate throughout the evening and tonight. https://t.co/ERqWTklvZI— NWS Mobile (@NWSMobile) September 15, 2020
The National Weather Service also issued a flash flood warning for most of north and central Georgia from Wednesday afternoon through Friday morning, due to anticipated heavy rainfall from the storm's rain bands.
In a Tuesday evening briefing, Graham warned of the dangers of "repetitive rain" and significant storm surge from the slow-moving hurricane.
"Water is the leading cause of fatalities in these tropical systems historically, and that's what we have here," he said.
Federal emergencies have been declared in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, with President Trump approving disaster requests from those states' governors.
Parts of the western Florida Panhandle and Alabama are seeing tropical storm conditions, and the situation is expected to deteriorate. Those same areas were included in a tornado watch bulletin the National Weather Service issued Tuesday.
"Historic flooding is possible with extreme life-threatening flash flooding likely through Wednesday," the hurricane center said.
In Alabama, beaches were ordered closed, and residents are filling sandbags to protect the area from flooding, NPR member station Alabama Public Radio reported.
"The current projections of this storm have most of our state in the path," Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said Tuesday.
Ivey on Monday urged residents and tourists along the Alabama coast to evacuate.
In Mississippi, mandatory evacuation orders have been issued for parts of Harrison and Hancock counties. The state's emergency agency also warns, "Shelters will operate at limited capacity because of COVID-19 guidelines."
A voluntary evacuation order is also in effect for parts of Jackson County.
In Florida, Santa Rosa and Escambia counties are under voluntary evacuation orders. Strong winds have already forced several bridges to close in the Pensacola area, including Three Mile Bridge over Pensacola Bay.
In Louisiana, Sally's eastward shift prompted at least two parishes – St. Charles and St. John the Baptist — to rescind their evacuation orders late Tuesday morning. But other areas with more exposure to the Gulf, such as St. Bernard Parish, are already coping with flooding that began Monday.
A tropical storm warning for New Orleans was lifted Tuesday morning, providing relief in a city that is sheltering people who fled Hurricane Laura's arrival in the Lake Charles area weeks ago.
The storm's rain bands, combined with a storm surge of up to 7 feet, are expected to produce dangerous floods. Forecasters reduced their storm surge predictions late Tuesday morning after earlier projecting a maximum surge of 9 or even 11 feet.
A storm surge warning, meaning there is a danger of life-threatening inundation by waters along the coast, is in effect from the mouth of the Mississippi River to the Okaloosa/Walton county line in Florida. The advisory also includes Mobile Bay.
Sally is currently moving northwest, but its path is expected to curl northward and then a bit to the east. The timing of those maneuvers is uncertain, leaving its projected path in doubt as people rush to prepare for strong winds and high water.
After Sally makes landfall, flooding risks will spread farther inland, eventually reaching northern Georgia and the western sections of South Carolina and North Carolina later this week, forecasters said.
Sally rapidly strengthened on Monday, with sustained winds of 100 mph. That prompted forecasters to say it could have winds of up to 110 mph when it makes landfall. Those estimates have now been lowered, and the storm is expected to be a Category 1 hurricane when it finally arrives.
Sally is expected to remain at tropical storm strength or higher until early Thursday.