BILOXI, Miss. — Hurricane Sally continued to gather strength as it meandered off the Gulf Coast, an oaf of a storm that could linger with hard rain and 100-mph winds threatening to shove massive amounts of storm water onto the shores of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.
“We do anticipate a lot of flooding,” Cecilia Dobbs Walton, Biloxi’s spokeswoman, said Monday. She repeated the city’s message to its population of 46,000: “Heed the warnings. Just prepare. You’ve been through this before. You’ve been through worse. Don’t let your guard down.”
The thud of nail guns pierced the air as residents boarded up houses at the last minute. Others fled the low-lying coast for higher ground.
“I blocked the windows off and hope for the best,” said Tyrone Adams, a part-time courier whose 57th birthday is two days after Sally is expected to make landfall today. “I can’t stop it. Hope that we don’t get pounded on.”
In another sign of a dangerous and troubling time, Sally is one of at least five tropical systems that swirled across the Atlantic on Monday, the most since 1971, when there were six. September has set a record for the most named storms in the Atlantic, said Phil Klotzbach, a tropical weather researcher at Colorado State University.
It’s been a record year for tropical activity in the Atlantic, with 20 named storms forming and obliterating the typical average of 11. A La Niña weather condition that’s cooling waters in the Pacific Ocean creates more tropical waters in the Atlantic, a condition ripe for hurricanes.
The number of storms with a closed, low-pressure center this hurricane season has nearly exhausted the alphabet to name them. Tropical storms Teddy and Vicky are the latest in a season that does not end until November.
More storms are possible this week as disturbances move off the western coast of Africa and take advantage of ocean temperatures that are warmer than average. After the next storm, forecasters will be forced to dip into the Greek alphabet for names, which would be the earliest this occurrence has happened. Greek names were most recently used in the Atlantic during the 2005 hurricane season, the busiest on record.
Tropical Storm Zeta, which required the sixth letter in the Greek alphabet, closed out that season.
Hurricanes Sally and Paulette are the only two that pose imminent threats to land, with Sally nearing the Gulf Coast and Paulette having moved over Bermuda, bringing a wind gust of 117 mph at an elevated marine observatory.
Sally was expected to strike the Mississippi coast tthis morning as a Category 2 hurricane. With its slow forward speed, the National Hurricane Center expects the storm to be linger, producing heavy downpours that could deluge parts of the Gulf Coast with more than 2 feet of rain that could cause widespread flooding.
If torrential downpours continue for hours in New Orleans, the capacity of the city’s pumping system would be challenged.
Mobile Bay, Alabama, is under a storm surge warning, and the National Hurricane Center anticipates 5 to 8 feet of inundation if a storm surge coincides with this evening’s high tide.
Nearby Dauphin Island could experience a 6- to 9-foot surge. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, closed the beaches Monday and recommended the evacuation of flood-prone areas south of Interstate 10.
In Biloxi, Mississippi, nine casinos and Keesler Air Force Base intensified preparations as the storm approached. An order sent operators of marinas and RV parks to high ground. Officials urged residents in flood-prone areas to seek shelter.
Dobbs Walton said the area suffered severe damage from Hurricane Nate, in 2017, and over a dozen years earlier during Hurricane Katrina.
Adams said his family has lost 17 houses since Hurricane Camille in 1969, but they stayed because Biloxi is their home. Crawfish boils, oyster shuckings and fun on the balmy, palm-tree dotted coast fill his memories.
“I’m born and raised here,” he said. “I don’t want to leave.”
On Monday, the flashing party lights of a string of casinos lit the Highway 90 waterfront strip. A marquee dangled the possibility of a $250,000 jackpot and a facsimile of a giant guitar on the side of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Biloxi.
Bernie and Mary Donlin were not afraid of the approaching storm. Even with the memories of a family home destroyed in Camille and again during Katrina, they headed into the Boomtown Casino for lunch and to play the slots.
“If we made it through Katrina and Camille, this will just be a pain in the behind,” Bernie, 71, said as the parking lot behind him emptied out.
“I’m not worried,” Mary, 77, added.
Her husband winked. “She knows she’s got me to take care of her.” Holding hands, they headed home.