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PENSACOLA, Fla. – A newly strengthened Hurricane Sally pummeled the Florida Panhandle and south Alabama with sideways rain, beach-covering storm surges, strong winds and power outages early Wednesday, moving toward shore at an agonizingly slow pace that promised a drawn out drenching and possible record floods.

Some 150,000 homes and businesses had lost electricity by early Wednesday, according to the poweroutage.us site. A curfew was called in the coastal Alabama city of Gulf Shores due to life-threatening conditions. In the Panhandle's Escambia County, Chief Sheriff's Deputy Chip Simmons vowed to keep deputies out with residents as long as physically possible. The county includes Pensacola, one of the largest cities on the Gulf Coast.

“The sheriff’s office will be there until we can no longer safely be out there, and then and only then will we pull our deputies in,” Simmons said at a storm briefing late Tuesday.

This for a storm that, during the weekend, appeared to be headed for New Orleans. “Obviously this shows what we’ve known for a long time with storms – they are unpredictable,” Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson IV said.

Sally rapidly strengthened as it approached land, quickly rising into a Category 2 storm, packing 100 mph (160 kph) winds. It was 65 miles south-southeast of Mobile, Alabama, and moving north-northeast at 2 mph (4 kph). Landfall was expected on the northern Gulf Coast early Wednesday. A National Hurricane Center forecast map showed a possible landfall between Alabama's Mobile Bay and the Panhandle.

Sally was a rare storm that could make history, said Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center.

“Sally has a characteristic that isn’t often seen and that’s a slow forward speed and that’s going to exacerbate the flooding,” Rappaport told The Associated Press.

He likened the storm's slow progression to that of Hurricane Harvey, which swamped Houston in 2017. Up to 30 inches (76 centimeters) of rain could fall in some spots, and “that would be record-setting in some locations,” Rappaport said in an interview Tuesday night.

Although the hurricane had the Alabama and Florida coasts in its sights Wednesday, its effects were felt all along the northern Gulf Coast. Low lying properties in southeast Louisiana were swamped by the surge. Water covered Mississippi beaches and parts of the highway that runs parallel to them. Two large casino boats broke loose from a dock where they were undergoing construction work in Alabama.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves urged people in the southern part of his state to prepare for the potential for flash flooding.

After dumping rain on the coast Wednesday, Sally was forecast to bring heavy downpours to parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas later in the week.

Sally's power was an irresistible draw for some in its path.

With heavy rains pelting Navarre Beach, Fla., and the wind-whipped surf pounding, a steady stream of people walked down the wooden boardwalk at a park for a look at the scene Tuesday afternoon.

Rebecca Studstill, who lives inland, was wary of staying too long, noting that police close bridges once the wind and water get too high. With Hurricane Sally expected to dump rain for days, the problem could be worse than normal, she said.

“Just hunkering down would probably be the best thing for folks out here,” she said.

___

Wang reported from Mobile, Alabama and Martin, from Marietta, Georgia. Associated Press reporters Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia; Sophia Tulp in Atlanta; Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Florida; Rebecca Santana in New Orleans; Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi and Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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Labor Day Holiday Has Yet to Lead to Virus Surge in Alabama

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A feared increase in Alabama's coronavirus caseload after Labor Day get-togethers has yet to materialize two weeks after the holiday, leaving health officials cautiously optimistic.

While new cases are being confirmed daily and about 240 people have died of COVID-19 since the first weekend of the month, the state's daily caseload has declined a little instead of skyrocketing. The head of the Alabama Department of Public Health, Dr. Scott Harris, said he's “pleasantly surprised."

“I would say we’ve not seen a big spike from Labor Day,” Harris told WSFA-TV.

Alabama's rule requiring facial coverings in public for anyone who can't remain 6 feet (1.83 meters) away from others made a difference, said Dr. Donald Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association.

“More people wore their mask while engaging in gatherings around Labor Day, and I think that as a direct result, we are seeing fewer hospitalizations and we might have feared,” said Williamson.

Hospitalizations in Alabama are at roughly the same level as before the July 4 holiday, which was blamed for a summertime increase in cases, Williamson said.

Alabama has had 2,457 deaths from COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins. The state's death count is the nation's 21st highest.

But over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has decreased by 8.6%, even as the seven-day average for tests taken has increased. There were 262 new cases per 100,000 people in Alabama over the period, which ranks 12th in the country, according to Johns Hopkins.

The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms for most people, but it can be deadly for the elderly and people with serious health problems.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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