MOBILE, Alabama — Winston Churchill wrote in the late 1800s that “nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result,” and that’s what most of us in Mobile would feel about Hurricane Sally if it weren’t that so many people just across the bay suffered so many very real wounds.
The city of Mobile endured more than 24 hours of sustained winds ranging from tropical depression strength to low-hurricane power, but the damage was relatively mild. When Category 3 Hurricane Ivan blew through 16 years ago to the very day, it knocked down tens of thousands of trees, probably several for every block of the city. Sally, by contrast, felled trees only intermittently — some huge ones, to be sure, but most roads remained quite passable despite carpets of fallen minor branches.
Still, just a block from me, a huge blackjack oak upended entirely, cutting off access to not one but two culs-de-sac. Chainsaws buzzed as about a dozen distant neighbors worked to partition and remove it.
Power outages are widespread, depriving 162,000 customers in Mobile County, but it’s impossible to imagine those outages lasting anywhere near as long as the nine-plus days of powerlessness in our post-Ivan neighborhood — or even the six-plus days endured after Hurricane Katrina. The rain still falls, lightly now, as I write, almost 60 unbroken hours of it. But this isn’t New Orleans: We’re not paddling canoes down streets that sit literally below sea level.
But, oh, what awful reports from neighboring Baldwin County! What happens after one of these storms is a constant stream of text messages and calls: Hey, how’d you do? Everybody OK over there? Any damage?
What we’re hearing, what everyone is hearing, is “don’t even think about driving over here: The roads are all impassable.”
Inland a few miles, trees block every route, and rivers are running fully twice as high as official flood stage; at the coast and for half-a-mile inward — well, let’s just say local news is replete with video of alligators swimming down major highways and of boats somehow wrecked atop flooded SUVs.
Still, these storms are fickle characters. Reports from Point Clear, on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, describe the pier jutting out from one property completely intact, the pier at the very next one completely destroyed — and so on. And Point Clear was lucky. For hours, it seemed to be Sally’s intended bull’s-eye, which would have meant a 9-foot storm surge ravaging its seaside homes. Instead, the storm’s late jog eastward put Point Clear on the eye’s west side, so the winds literally blew much of the water out of the bay rather than into it.
Poor Gulf Shores and, across the Florida line, Pensacola: Both had just the opposite luck, with the surge from the Gulf of Mexico rushing like an invading army through city streets and homes. In fact, as I write, 12 hours after official hurricane landfall in Alabama, “It’s still just ripping out there,” according to Renee Giachino, the general counsel of the Center for Individual Freedom and a former city council member of the Pensacola suburb of Gulf Breeze. “[Sally] just wouldn’t stop; she was just relentless all night long. First, she came from one side of the house, then we got a brief rest, and then, she came from the other direction — like getting punched in the face first on one cheek and then the other.”
Near Gulf Shores, the state-owned Gulf State Park had planned for this very day the official ribbon-cutting for its massive, new, $2.4 million public pier. Instead, the whole thing washed away. Just gone.
This isn’t exhilarating; it’s heartbreaking. We in Mobile are relatively lucky, but in the coming weeks, our neighbors will need lots of help. Please, if you can, find a way to lend a hand.