As Hurricane Sally churned off the Gulf Coast about midday on Sept. 15, Pensacola Mayor Grover C. Robinson IV and Police Chief Tommi Lyter were cruising along Bayfront Parkway watching the sea’s ominous rise, bracing for what loomed.
“We're just hunkered down and waiting for the storm,” Robinson, a Republican, told Flood Trends by phone. Based on weather reports, he wasn’t expecting a direct hit, but he worried that a Gulf surge could flood parts of downtown Pensacola. The mayor was cautiously optimistic the city was prepared.
When Sally lumbered ashore as a Category 2 hurricane in the predawn hours the next morning, its fierce eastern eyewall raked Pensacola Bay, pushing a five-foot surge that inundated eight-to-ten blocks of the downtown area. With waters as deep as six feet in some places, cars, business and some homes were submerged. The surge, driven by 105 mph winds, was accompanied by historic rainfall – some estimates at two feet.
Once the winds died down, first responders flared out in flatbottom boats, conducting more than 400 water rescues. Inspectors were dispatched to examine roads and bridges, including Three Mile Bridge which saw several lanes collapse into the bay after loose barges crashed into it.
The race was on to restore water and power to homes in many parts of the city and surrounding Escambia County, including the airport, seaport, wastewater treatment plant and county jail. Traffic signals had to be fixed. Places had to be designated to receive mountains of debris. Police were deployed to protect evacuated neighborhoods from looters. A curfew was imposed. And Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody was on hand to warn residents of the “swarm of fraudsters and criminals” she said would descend on Escambia County to rip off desperate, unsuspecting homeowners whose property was damaged. Insurance fraud inspectors were mobilizing.
Even as floodwaters caused by the surge were beginning to subside, Escambia County’s Public Safety Director Jason Rogers warned that the flood threat wasn’t over. There would be more flooding as Sally’s torrential rains, falling across Alabama and Georgia, began to drain south toward Pensacola and the Gulf.
“The storm is now coming south at us... So, we’re going to see water rising and falling in different places.” he said at a press conference in the county’s emergency operations center.
With hundreds of people still stranded in their homes, Gov. Ron DeSantis, after touring the damage in a Coast Guard airplane, said at an airport press conference, “The hurricane is past Florida, but we’re going to continue to see impacts in different parts of Florida because of the sheer amount of water that’s been dumped all across the southeast."
The frenzy of activity the day after Hurricane Sally’s eastern eyewall struck Pensacola is a reminder of how challenging it is to get a city back up and running after being struck down by sea surge, heavy rains and high winds.
The last time Pensacola experienced anything like this was after Hurricane Ivan struck in 2004, 16 years earlier to the day Sally hit. In 2014, much of Pensacola was submerged by a freak storm that dropped 21 inches of rain in 24 hours, flooding streets, businesses and homes, and stranding motorists. At the time, it was Pensacola’s worst flooding since Ivan.
Since then, the city has expanded retention ponds and stormwater drainage pipes, but the improvements haven’t been tested, Mayor Robinson said. During the days leading up to Sally’s arrival, the city made sure its stormwater drainage system was as clear as possible, he added, as clogs cause flooding.
“We know we’re going to be challenged, and the seas are going to be high,” he said 17 hours before Sally made landfall. At the time he and Police Chief Lyter, cruising along the waterfront, had just spotted a barge that had broken loose from its moorings in the Pensacola Bay, churning as Sally approached. It would end up striking a bridge, temporarily closing a crucial evacuation route. Perhaps it was an ominous sign.
“We think we’re good, but you never know until you’re tested,” the mayor said.