LUMBERTON — Hurricane Sally had been downgraded to a tropical storm Wednesday afternoon as it crept deeper into Alabama, but its touch was being felt in Southeastern North Carolina, where forecasters were keeping an eye on the destructive storm and warning of possible flooding.
On Wednesday afternoon the National Weather Service upgraded the risk for severe weather from marginal to slight because the remnants of the storm that came ashore near the Florida-Alabama line at 4:45 a.m. as a hurricane packing winds of 105 mph could dump heavy rain across the central and western parts of North Carolina. The severe weather risk is predicted to be present Thursday afternoon, through the overnight hours and into early Friday morning. A few tornadoes are possible, and there is the potential for damaging wind gusts from thunderstorms.
Also on Wednesday afternoon, the NWS issued a Flash Flood Watch for Bladen and Robeson counties in North Carolina and Darlington, Dillon, Florence, Marion, Marlboro and Williamsburg counties in South Carolina. The watch is effective from 8 a.m. Thursday until 8 p.m. Friday.
“As the remnants of Sally move through the region, periods of moderate to heavy rain will begin on Thursday and will continue through Friday afternoon, before tapering Friday evening. Storm total rainfall amounts of 3 to 5 inches, with locally higher amounts, will lead to a threat of flash flooding in the watch area,” the warning reads in part.
The expected rainfall could cause rapid rises of water, flooded roads, and the flooding of structures in low lying areas near streams, according to the NWS.
Whether or not there is flooding in Robeson County is dependant on how much rain Sally dumps on the area, according to Victoria Oliva, a meteorologist with the NWS office in Wilmington. There is a greater risk if the storm’s remnants shift east as it passes through North Carolina, thus causing heavier rainfall over Robeson County.
As of early Wednesday evening the storm was expected to drop 3 to 4 inches of rain on Robeson County, with some areas getting between 5 and 6 inches, she said.
“The heaviest stuff will fall in the northwest and central parts of the state,” Oliva said.
The Lumber River was about 4 feet below its 13-foot flood stage as of Wednesday afternoon, she said.
“It may approach flood stage, maybe, Friday evening,” she said.
But, if Sally’s tract shifts, the county could see heavier rainfall, Oliva said. So residents need to be alert and cautious, particularly motorists.
“Be aware. Be cautious. Turn around. Don’t drown,” she said.
Motorists who try to drive through standing water and flooded roadways run the risk of becoming trapped and drowning.
The meteorologist urged area resident to have access to electronic devises that can receive NWS alerts and information.
The NWS urges residents to be prepared to take appropriate actions should a severe weather, or flooding, alert is issued.
The NWS forecast for Robeson County calls for showers and possibly a thunderstorm Thursday, with a high near 79. Some of the storms could produce heavy rainfall. Showers and thunderstorms also are predicted for Thursday evening and into Friday morning. One to 2 inches of rain is possible.
Showers are likely Friday. A thunderstorm is possible before 2 p.m., then there is a chance of showers. The high temperature is expected to be near 76.
The chance of showers exists Friday evening and into Saturday afternoon. The forecast calls for mostly cloudy skies Saturday night.
Sunday is expected to be partly sunny, with a high near 69.
After making landfall, Sally accelerated slightly as it battered the Pensacola and Mobile, Alabama, metropolitan areas encompassing nearly 1 million people.
It cast boats onto land or sank them at the dock, flattened palm trees, peeled away roofs, blew down signs and knocked out power to more than a 540,000 homes and businesses. A replica of Christopher Columbus’ ship the Nina that had been docked at the Pensacola waterfront was missing, police said.
Sally tore loose a barge-mounted construction crane, which then smashed into the new Three Mile Bridge over Pensacola Bay, causing a section of the year-old span to collapse, authorities said. The storm also ripped away a large section of a fishing pier at Alabama’s Gulf State Park on the very day a ribbon-cutting had been scheduled following a $2.4 million renovation.
By the afternoon, authorities in Escambia County, which includes Pensacola, said at least 377 people had been rescued from flooded areas. More than 40 people trapped by high water were brought to safety within a single hour, including a family of four found in a tree, Sheriff David Morgan said.
Authorities in Pensacola said 200 National Guard members would arrive Thursday to help. Curfews were announced in Escambia County and in some coastal Alabama towns.
Sally turned some Pensacola streets into white-capped rivers early Wednesday. Sodden debris and flooded cars were left behind as the water receded.
By early afternoon, Sally had weakened into a tropical storm, with winds down to 70 mph. Showers still fell in parts of the stricken area Wednesday evening, and the storm was expected to generate heavy rain farther inland as it moved over Alabama and into Georgia.
At least eight waterways in south Alabama and the Florida Panhandle were expected to hit their major flood levels by Thursday. Some of the crests could break records, submerge bridges and flood some homes, the National Weather Service warned.
Morgan, the Escambia County sheriff, estimated thousands would need to flee rising waters in the coming days. Escambia officials urged residents to rely on text messages for contacting family and friends to keep cellphone service open for 911 calls.
“There are entire communities that we’re going to have to evacuate,” the sheriff said. “It’s going to be a tremendous operation over the next several days.”
Sally was the second hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast in less than three weeks and the latest blow in one of the busiest hurricane seasons ever. Forecasters have nearly run through the alphabet of storm names with 2 1/2 months still to go. At the start of the week, Sally was one of a record-tying five storms churning simultaneously in the Atlantic basin.