Storm like Sally could be the new normal, experts warn

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Climate conditions such as warmer sea temperatures have made the Sally scenario – a slow-moving rainmaker capable of rapid intensification – more likely than ever.

NEW ORLEANS (WWL-TV) — Storm surge as high as 12 feet. More than 25 inches of rain over two days. That’s what Hurricane Sally brought to the Alabama coast and Florida panhandle.

What if that same type of storm were to hit the New Orleans metro area?

“It would be a huge, widespread, very dangerous life-threatening event to see that type of rainfall over the course of a 12- to 18-hour period,” said  Meteorologist-in-Chief Ben Schott at the National Weather Service in Slidell.

Schott said climate conditions such as warmer sea temperatures have made the Sally scenario – a slow-moving rainmaker capable of rapid intensification – more likely than ever.

“There are quite a few studies recently from tropical researchers that are showing that storms are going to be slowing down along the United States’ coastline,” Schott said.

Storm-wary residents in the New Orleans area may be breathing a sigh of relief after seeing the Sally take a turn into Alabama and Florida. But with Tropical Storm Beta now churning in the Gulf, local officials are sounding the warning that another Sally-type rainmaker not only remains a threat, but a threat that continues to increase.

What does that mean for the typical property owner in Southeast Louisiana?

Schott said that while the chances in any given year for an individual property to flood is about two percent, cumulatively the odds are much are greater over time.

“If you buy a house and take out a 30-year mortgage,” he said, “you are pretty much at risk to see flooding at your house basically in the time of that 30-year mortgage.”

The risk is not lost on the region’s emergency directors.

Jefferson Parish Emergency Management Director Joe Valiente said the parish had 80 rescue boats on standby ahead of Sally. He said that for a Category 1 or 2 hurricane that doesn’t call for an evacuation, there are still significant chances that the storm could stall and bring flooding rains along with days-long power outages.

He said Sally was a good reminder for South Louisiana as to just how dangerous these systems can be.

“You have to be prepared for search-and-rescue missions after the winds subside,” Valiente said.

New Orleans Emergency Preparedness Director Colin Arnold said Hurricane Sally, along with the earlier season dual threats of Marco and Laura have led to adjustments in how officials prepare for individual storms.

He said more rapid intensification of storms over warm Gulf waters can advance the timing of warnings, evacuations and even preparation for possible rescues.

“That is something that we definitely have to adapt for,” Arnold said. “We have to adjust our timelines. We have to adjust our plans and have a robust post-storm evacuation plan.”

Arnold said he hopes Sally should remind people of what could easily happen here.

“Look, this could be for a hurricane, or this could be for an afternoon rainstorm,” he said.

Arnold and Valiente both stressed that it is difficult to pinpoint where flooding may occur, as that depends on the differences in each individual storm.

In New Orleans, flooding could also depend on breakdowns in the city’s aging draining equipment.

But the biggest takeaway from Sally, Arnold and Valiente agreed, is not to let the Sally’s turn to the east allow complacency make landfall in vulnerable South Louisiana.

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