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'Huge rainmaker': Hurricane Sally threatens historic floods

NAVARRE BEACH, Fla. — Heavy rain and pounding surf driven by Hurricane Sally hit the Florida and Alabama coasts Tuesday as forecasters expected the slow-moving storm to dump continuous deluges before and after landfall, possibly triggering dangerous, historic flooding along the northern Gulf Coast.

“It’s going to be a huge rainmaker,” said Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist and meteorologist at Colorado State University. “It’s not going to be pretty.”

The National Hurricane Center expected Sally to remain a Category 1 hurricane, with top sustained winds of 80 mph at landfall late Tuesday or early Wednesday. The storm’s sluggish pace made it harder to predict where its center would strike.

Sally remained dangerous even after losing power, its fiercest winds having dropped considerably from a peak of 100 mph on Monday.

Tuesday evening, hurricane warnings stretched from east of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, to Navarre, Florida. Rainfall of up to 20 inches was forecast near the coast. There was a chance the storm could also spawn tornadoes and dump isolated rain accumulations of 30 inches.

Heavy rain and surf pounded the barrier island of Navarre Beach, Florida, on Tuesday afternoon and road signs wobbled in the gusty wind.

Two large casino boats broke loose Tuesday from a dock where they were undergoing construction work in Bayou La Batre, Alabama. M.J. Bosarge, who lives near the shipyard, said at least one of the riverboats had done considerable damage to the dock.

“You really want to get them secured because with wind and rain like this, the water is constantly rising,” Bosarge said. “They could end up anywhere. There’s no telling where they could end up.”

In Orange Beach, Alabama, towering waves crashed onshore Tuesday as Crystal Smith and her young daughter, Taylor, watched. They drove more than an hour through sheets of rain and whipping wind to take in the sight.

“It’s beautiful, I love it,” Crystal Smith said. “But they are high. Hardly any of the beach isn’t covered.”

Capt. Michael Thomas, an Orange Beach fishing guide, was outside securing boats and making other last-minute preparations. He estimated up to 5 inches of rain had fallen in as many hours.

“I’m as prepared as I can be,” Thomas said.

A couple miles away in Gulf Shores, Alabama, waves crashed over the end of the long fishing pier at Gulf State Park. Some roads in the town already were covered with water.

Stacy Stewart, a senior specialist with the National Hurricane Center, said Tuesday that people should continue to take the storm seriously since “devastating” rainfall is expected in large areas. People could drown in the flooding, he said.

“This is going to be historic flooding along with the historic rainfall,” Stewart said. “If people live near rivers, small streams and creeks, they need to evacuate and go somewhere else.”

Donald Jones, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Louisiana, said Sally could unleash flooding similar to what Hurricane Harvey inflicted in 2017 when it swamped the Houston metropolitan area.

As rain grew heavier Tuesday, many businesses appeared to be closed at exits along the I-10 highway that runs parallel to the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida.

In Gulfport, Mississippi, white plastic bags hung over some gas station pumps to signal they were out of fuel. Along a bayou that extended inland from the Gulf, three shrimp boats were tied up as shrimpers and others tried to protect their boats from waves and storm surge. Most boat slips at Gulfport’s marina were empty, and many businesses had metal storm shutters or plywood covering the windows.

In Alabama, officials closed the causeway to Dauphin Island and the commuter tunnel that runs beneath the Mobile River. An online video from Dauphin Island showed a few cars and SUVs stuck in a beachfront area, their tires sunk deep into wet sand.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey urged residents near Mobile Bay and low-lying areas near rivers to evacuate if conditions still permitted a safe escape. The National Hurricane Center predicted storm surge along Alabama’s coast, including Mobile Bay, could reach 7 feet above ground.

“This is not worth risking your life,” Ivey said during a news conference Tuesday.

The storm was moving at only 2 mph Tuesday afternoon, centered about 105 miles south of Mobile, Alabama, and 60 miles east of the mouth of the Mississippi River. Hurricane-force winds stretched 45 miles from its center.

After making landfall, Sally was forecast to cause flash floods and minor to moderate river flooding across inland portions of Mississippi, Alabama, northern Georgia and the western Carolinas through the rest of the week.

President Donald Trump issued emergency declarations for parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama on Monday, and tweeted that residents should listen to state and local leaders.

The threat to Louisiana was easing as officials in some areas reversed evacuation orders that had been issued for areas feared to be a risk of flooding from Sally.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared an emergency in 13 counties as rain from Sally’s outer bands pummeled the Panhandle on Tuesday.

The threat of heavy rain and storm surge was exacerbated by the storm’s slow movement.

Electronic gaming machines proliferated in Virginia ahead of July placement deadline

There are more than 9,000 electronic gaming machines in circulation in Virginia that legislators maintain they will ban next year after they collect tax revenue to support coronavirus relief efforts.

The machines contributed about $12 million in tax payments in July, according to the Virginia Department of Taxation. Most of that tax revenue has gone into a newly established COVID-19 relief fund.

At the beginning of the year, the General Assembly wanted to ban these machines that look like slot machines but claim to have an element of skill that could allow them to elude the state’s prohibition on gambling. The machines rapidly proliferated across Virginia last year in convenience stores, restaurants and truck stops.

Then the General Assembly decided in April to allow the machines to continue to operate for another year as a lifeline to struggling businesses and as a source of additional revenue to help with coronavirus services.

The companies making the machines had until July 1 to place the games in Virginia. Travis Hill, chief executive officer of the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, told the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday that 87 distributors registered 10,291 machines in Virginia, so no more will be allowed to enter the market. Of those operating, 1,126 of them are in the region stretching from Roanoke to far Southwest Virginia.

The machines are only allowed to be in businesses with ABC licenses and truck stops. The makers of the machines can move the machines around, so if a business is closed because of the coronavirus, they can be relocated to other establishments.

Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, has not been a fan of the machines and wanted to ban them. He urged the ABC to keep a close eye on the machines to ensure they’re not evading tax collection or placing more machines in the market.

“I have historically referred to them as somewhat as bandits, and sometimes bandits are less than forthcoming with information,” Norment said.

Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, assured the committee that she and Gov. Ralph Northam are still united in banning the machines by next June, “so that no one is doubtful.”

When legislators return for their regular session in January, they may also consider changing alcohol laws in Virginia.

“What this pandemic has done is really reframe the conversation about businesses and the control of alcohol,” Hill said.

Since the pandemic, the state has allowed restaurants and distilleries with on-premises licenses to sell cocktails for delivery or to go. The ABC created an expedited process to approve requests for outside dining areas. It also allowed ABC distillery stores to do shipments of spirits.

Alcohol sales sharply dropped when the pandemic reached Virginia and businesses shut down. While alcohol sales at establishments are down compared with sales before the pandemic, the measures have helped gradually grow some of the revenue back.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said a lot of restaurants that rely on alcohol sales have been hit hard.

“What can we do as an assembly to help out restaurants that would normally rely on alcohol sales as a way to get people in the door?” he asked.

Hill said it might be worth looking at some of the changes that were made during the pandemic.

“We kind of told ourselves, we’ve got to be able to live with this long-term in case it does become a permanent basis,” Hill said.