Inside the eyewall and eye of Hurricane Sally in Alabama

With their scientific elegance comes terrible destruction — and the knowledge that lives could be forever altered, with forecasts for “historic” rainfall and “life-threatening flash flooding” echoing predictions of a dire storm surge and severe winds. Forty-eight hours later, I would be standing inside Sally’s calm eye, after weathering 90-to-100-mph […]

With their scientific elegance comes terrible destruction — and the knowledge that lives could be forever altered, with forecasts for “historic” rainfall and “life-threatening flash flooding” echoing predictions of a dire storm surge and severe winds.

Forty-eight hours later, I would be standing inside Sally’s calm eye, after weathering 90-to-100-mph wind gusts and a foot and a half of rain.


I landed in New Orleans at 8 p.m., rented a car and zipped east toward Biloxi, Miss. Sally was already in range of the National Weather Service’s Mobile, Ala., weather radar, a messy eye periodically forming and withering. Forecasts at the time called for it to churn northwestward toward coastal Mississippi or adjacent Louisiana; its eventual strength was uncertain.

Only a gentle breeze stirred Monday evening as I arrived at my hotel, the air thick with moisture but devoid of any rain.


Tuesday morning revealed that little had changed overnight — Biloxi was on the razor-thin edge of Sally’s precipitation shield. A few specks of blue sky smirked in the west, while the eastern horizon appeared dark and foreboding, a midmorning dusk setting in. I drove east.

Bands of light to moderate rain continued to pivot ashore throughout the day, with a storm surge beginning to splash ashore near the coast. I headed down to Gulf Shores, Ala., where I would ride out the storm.

What started as puddles became small roadside lagoons Tuesday evening, with a foot or two of water gushing down main roadways in coastal Gulf Shores. Sheets of rain and gale-force winds swept through the streets. Stop signs fluttered in the building winds.

By nightfall, the surge was becoming ominous — instead of just a submerged shoulder or a blocked lane of traffic, the best-case scenario meant driving through half a foot of water. The only other vehicles on the road were police cars, and I headed a mile or two inland as the 8 p.m. curfew neared. As I rounded the corner into my hotel’s parking lot, between four and 14 inches of water awaited me, and I parked my rental atop a raised concrete sidewalk.

A suddenly strengthening storm

Around that same time, the ever-capricious Sally began doing something it wasn’t supposed to do — strengthen. Its eye began clearing, its eyewall sharpening, and Doppler radar revealed winds ramping up in a hurry. Satellites showed a circular void beginning to form as Sally’s eye emerged.

Just 40 miles north of Sally’s center, the weather wasn’t great, but it paled in comparison to what was coming. Winds gusted 40 to 50 mph but only in bursts. Lights flickered in the hotel and surrounding neighborhoods, the traffic lights flashing yellow and red until electricity came back each time.

At the eyewall’s edge

The power went out for good around 10:30 p.m., about the same time as a lull in the winds. With all the air rapidly rising in the eyewall, it had to sink somewhere — and some of it subsided in bands radially outward.

The combination of wind and rain was like being inside a washing machine. I noticed a few “couplets” of rotation on radar pass to the north as Sally’s changing winds tried to spin up sporadic tornadoes.

Then things got ugly. Even though Sally was barely moving, its northern eyewall had arrived. The gusts became a constant, sustained roar, with entire trees swaying and branches whipping to and fro. Blue flashes flickered outside in rapid succession — power flashes resulting from blown transformers or severed power lies.

Sally’s eyewall

My cellphone screeched as a new flash-flood warning was issued. Close to 10 inches of rain had already fallen, and another foot-plus was on its way. At midnight, Sally was declared a Category 2 storm with 100-mph winds. And then it strengthened even more. The door to my room rattled as the breeze outside sent air-pressure fluctuations throughout the building. Conditions worsened through 1 a.m.

I forced myself to get a few hours of shut-eye, knowing that Sally’s landfall and damage would spell a long day ahead.

I awoke to the sound of crashes. My phone clock read 3:32 a.m. The wind was screaming, a pressure washer of wind and rain battering the building. Not a light was visible anywhere, but the silhouettes of trees could be seen flailing wildly, as if frantically trying to get someone’s attention. A howl could be heard in the hallway — the thunderous voice of Sally.

Suddenly, the wind relaxed some. But moments later, it surged back even stronger than before. Over the next 15 minutes it trailed off, a stair-step pattern with abrupt slackening of the furious breeze that had tortured us for hours.

The eye

By 4 a.m., I was in the eye — an oasis of calm surrounded by meteorological hostility. At first, I could feel the air stir against my face, but it soon became dead calm.

Tree frogs croaked and crickets began chirping, as if gradually realizing they were allowed to. The sky overhead remained misty, with occasional dark patches where sinking air eroded some of the low-level cloud cover. The serene scene belied the rage that surrounded me just miles away in all directions.

An overnight inspection of the damage

The parking lot had become a veritable lake, with water more than a foot high after 20 inches of rain. Multiple vehicles were flooded, water up to the driver’s seats. I was three miles inland, but I watched as shrimp swam by on the sidewalk. The floodwaters were littered with shrapnel and roofing shingles.

It wasn’t long before I discovered the source of the clamor that awoke me — a 40-foot tree had been uprooted outside my window, a ball of roots greeting me at eye level. Another 14-inch-thick tree trunk nearby was snapped. One of the hotel’s doors had been ripped from the wall and thrown inside the building, while the other had been shattered by flying debris.

Some of the floodwaters in the parking lot began to subside after about 90 minutes in the eye. The air smelled fresh, as if cleansed by a summer downpour. I glanced at my phone’s radar display — the eye would linger overhead through sunrise, but a second burst of winds, not quite as strong, would accompany the back side.

For the time being, I stood outside, wondering what was happening a block, a mile or 10 miles away — how other people had fared riding out the storm and what the road to recovery would look like for them.

I glanced at the sky, unsuccessfully searching for stars through the veil of overcast as crickets chirped nearby.

Sometimes, one can find peace in the midst of chaos. And amid fury — beauty.

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