"Hurricane Sally wasn't supposed to be this bad."
Meteorologists said the winds and eyewall for slow-moving Sally had weakened. The forecast was plenty of rain and tropical storm wind. Most residents of the Gulf Coast saw no reason to evacuate and Sally even provided a spectacular sunset on Monday night. But by Tuesday afternoon, the forecast changed. Sally strengthened into a Category 2 hurricane, eventually shutting down power for an estimated 95 percent of Baldwin County residents. Sally howled and whipped all night before daylight revealed her damage.
Moving at three miles an hour with wind gusts up to 125 miles per hour, meteorologists said you could walk faster on a treadmill. Sally blew over oak trees that stood for generations, exposing their shallow roots. She snapped pine trees in half. Those trees knocked down power lines and blocked roads, making travel difficult and trapping some residents at their homes until the trees can be cleared. Chainsaws hummed as men tried to clear their streets. One warned that the oversaturated ground meant more trees could fall.
Some say Sally is worse than Hurricane Ivan that hit Gulf Shores on September 16, 2004, exactly 16 years ago. One man pulling branches out of his driveway said he had lived in his house for 44 years. Hurricane Frederick was a stronger hurricane, but Sally did more damage. Sally blew off roofs, tore down sheds and tossed a pole barn into another pasture. At Fish River, trees landed on fences and cars. A trailer was uprooted from the bottom by tree roots on the right side and smashed over the top by a tree on the left side.
An American flag still hung off the porch and a beagle barked by the "Beware of Dog" sign. It wasn’t just the wind. The tide was also swelling on Fish River. At noon, the river rose to the outdoor dining decks of Big Daddy's restaurant.
A sign on the front door said, "We will be closed for hurricane Sally 9/15/2020 and Wednesday 9/16/2020. We will reopen Thursday 9/17/202 at 11 am."
Fish River flowed across nearby Ferry Road and a white Trailblazer floated in the front yard. Many Fish River residents parked their cars and boats on higher ground but stayed in their homes overlooking the river to ride the storm out. Jason Moore climbed over and under pine trees the stretched across Ferry Road, trying to figure out how to pull in his boat to rescue his parents from their home on the banks of the river. If the water rises three more feet, it will be inside.
"There are a lot of people who are trapped in their homes right now," Moore said.
"We asked my parents to leave, but they wouldn't. There were looters here the last time it flooded and the people living here wanted to protect themselves. My parents were planning on selling the house soon for their retirement,” he said. “Now they have to clean up and start all over again."
Moore points to the yellow Dead End sign. "When Fish River flooded a couple of years go, I took my boat over that sign to get to my parents," he said. "That was about 23 feet. Today the water is only up to the bottom of 'End'. At least it isn't as high this time." "We weren't prepared for this," Moore said.
Residents are waiting to see if the Fish River's post Sally crest equals the record set back in 2014.
"Sally was much more than we expected."
An Alabama Public Radio news feature, which is part of APR effort to address the "news desert" along the state's Gulf coast. APR recruited and trained veteran print journalists in Mobile and Baldwin counties to join our news team to do radio stories from along the Gulf coast.