Lagniappe | Styx River crested 11 feet over its flood stage Sept. 16, temporarily trapping residents along Lindholm Road.
Kathleen Pizzitola was worried this would happen. Not Hurricane Sally per se, but any hurricane, or any torrential rain produced by more typical summer weather. In August, she and a handful of neighbors in the Wilcox area pleaded to the Baldwin County Commission about a 32-mile detour created by the county in July, when the highway department began a project to replace a deteriorating, single-lane wooden bridge on Lindholm Road.
At the time, Pizzitola said the detour created a “timely safety and health issue,” where emergency services would be unable to reach affected addresses in “any reasonable time frame.” Friday, three days after Hurricane Sally made landfall in Gulf Shores and crept slowly through Baldwin County dumping more than 20 inches of rain along the way, she and her neighbors remained trapped.
“I am currently on my way to get through the woods on a pathway neighbors have cleared with a tractor,” she said. “People are so desperate and on edge, it’s just awful. It’s a landlocked situation. We were struggling with this before the storm came in and now it’s so horrid.”
When the bridge was intact and the roads were clear, Pizzitola said it was less than a 10-minute jaunt to the Oasis Travel Center on County Road 64 in Robertsdale. Last week, the same trip would have taken more than 40 minutes in ideal conditions, but Hurricane Sally also flooded Styx River, cutting off their access to the south.
The county reported more than 10 roads were impassable even after debris was cleared, and another 26 roads had limited access. Particularly affected were those in the Fish River, Styx River and Perdido River basins.
According to data from the National Weather Service, at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 15, Styx River recorded a depth of 4.48 feet. Twenty-four hours later it was at 25.97 feet at County Road 64, more than 11 feet above flood stage. At the same time, both Fish River near Marlow and the Perdido River on the state line were cresting at more than 9 feet above flood stage.
“Lindholm is now cut off on two ends,” Pizzitola said. “Everything we were fighting for, that I said could happen, here it is. I appreciate everything the county is trying to do down here, but it’s pretty bad timing if you ask me.”
In August, County Engineer Joey Nunnally explained Lindholm Road was a dirt road until 2016, when the county spent $1.8 million to pave it. The old bridge was constructed by timber companies with wooden pilings and a wooden deck and had deteriorated to the point where it was downgraded to support the lowest possible tonnage, below what is required for a school bus to cross. He said the timing of the road closure was due to funding, but the $700,000 project to replace the bridge is expected to be complete in November.
“It will be replaced with a culvert … and we’ll build up the roadway above the floodplain,” he said. “In the end, there is going to be a lot better structure in place to carry the water, a higher roadway to get out the flood zone. With a little temporary pain of having to be detoured around, you’re going to end up with a lot better project in perpetuity.”
At 2:30 p.m. Sept. 15, before the water levels rose, the Baldwin County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) and the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office sent out a public notice to all residents of the river basins to evacuate and seek safe shelter. Warning of an “imminent threat of a high flood risk and historic flooding,” the county also advised residents of RVs and mobile homes to leave. Fort Morgan, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach were put under a curfew and residents were asked to shelter in place until Thursday morning.
Hurricane Sally had intensified to a category 2 and turned east. Despite early predictions of a landfall along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, it was coming ashore at Gulf Shores. Local officials considered a mandatory evacuation.
“There was a consensus among mayors on the call — I was the only one who thought a mandatory evacuation should be considered — but none of the other mayors thought so and I acquiesced and went along with them,” Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said. “In reality, what we said was, ‘There is not a mandatory evacuation, but if you’re here, you’re going to be in danger,’ and I bet 90 percent of the people who were in town left.”
Craft said, in retrospect, it’s not a question of whether the call was right or wrong, “because a mandatory evacuation can be dangerous too.”
“In reality, we didn’t lose anybody, we didn’t have anybody trapped,” he said. “We did have to rescue some people because we had like 125 calls overnight for humans in distress, but we were going out and getting people where we could and we established two temporary shelters and we ended up with people in both of them. I don’t second guess the plan about the evacuation, but I’m delighted no one got hurt.”
In neighboring Orange Beach, the police and fire departments responded to 120 calls during the storm. Last week, Baldwin County Coroner Brian Pierce also announced one of the storm’s two related deaths was reported there, where a man allegedly drowned. A second man was killed in a “cleanup accident” Sept. 18.
In the unincorporated areas of the county, Sheriff Hoss Mack said after the EMA issued the voluntary evacuation notice, he called the governor’s office and requested a mandatory evacuation.
“Under Alabama law, the public officials in Baldwin County can issue a voluntary evacuation, but only the governor can issue a mandatory evacuation,” he said. “We did make a phone call to the governor’s office, Tuesday afternoon, after the 1 p.m. briefing with the National Weather Service. Myself, a county commissioner and the EMA requested a mandatory evacuation and they kind of ran it up the flagpole between staff and the governor and they decided at that time it was not prudent to do a mandatory evacuation, so it was not done.”
Mack said the mandatory request mirrored the voluntary recommendation, for the flood basins of the Styx, Perdido and Fish rivers. Although Hurricane Sally was moving northeast at only 2 miles per hour, Mack said he was told “it was too late” to order a mandatory evacuation.
“Historically, whenever we’ve had an event with that amount of rainfall, we’ve had flooding and people cannot get out and we cannot get to them,” he said. “We felt we still had plenty of daylight left — six to seven hours — but the governor’s office also had some concern ordering evacuation for one area and not the other and the confusion it could cause. That was two primary reasons as to why they didn’t want to do that.”
At a news conference on Dauphin Island Friday, Gov. Kay Ivey said she took the dangers into consideration when considering a mandatory evacuation. But the request “came a little late in the game,” and she also felt confident residents would be better prepared for the storm than tourists.
Late last week, Mack said Fish River had already receded and while he was aware residents “had been locked in” on Styx River, “they had chosen to stay.”
“We have checked on them, they are fine, but they may be trapped for a while,” he said.
CLEANUP AND RECOVERY
When the storm hit, Orange Beach resident Clint Burton watched as his neighbor’s one-story home filled with water and the wind churned it back and forth in a dizzying pattern in the dark.
“All his furniture was swirling like a toilet bowl,” Burton said. “It felt like I was in an earthquake for hours.”
For other residents along Boat Basin Road, conditions from Hurricane Sally began to deteriorate as the storm slowed and strengthened Monday, Sept. 14, Burton said.
“Monday afternoon, we started getting the waves in,” he said. “I went out to my dock and pulled everything off. Monday night, it started getting worse. Then all day Tuesday, when it got dark, that’s when it really started getting bad.”
Burton said he’s ridden out five storms along the Gulf Coast and even remembers when Hurricane Frederic made landfall when he was a student at the University of South Alabama.
“It tore my apartment ceiling off. It was dripping down,” he said. “I jumped in my truck, went down Airport Boulevard, and looked at all the cool stuff.”
With Sally, he said, the homes on the coast took a beating because of how slowly the system moved over the area.
“This one lasted a day and a half,” Burton said. “That’s what killed us. My stuff would’ve survived if it was eight hours. All of these people wouldn’t have lost their docks. Mustang Sally ran me over and then backed up and did it again.”
As soon as the winds subsided, the work began.
On Thursday, over the hum of heavy equipment, Zach Orell watched as a crew from his landscaping company helped neighbors dig out from underneath piles of debris.
“We’ll clean up pretty quick,” he said. “We’re trying to get everybody where everyone can at least access their house.”
Orell owns two houses in the neighborhood, and while he was one of many residents in Orange Beach to ride out the storm, next time he’ll seek higher ground.
“I’ll never do it again,” he said. “It was scary. We weren’t prepared at all. No one around here was.”
He was prepared for the flooding, but what surprised Orell was the damage the 100-plus-mph winds did to their previously sturdy homes.
“Wind was never really a concern of mine, so we stayed,” he said. “All of a sudden that changed when we realized we were in a bad situation. Then it was too late. We had to stay and ride it out.”
By Sunday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had declared a major disaster for Mobile and Baldwin counties, along with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians’ properties. FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor toured the area, announcing individuals and public entities could apply for federal assistance for storm impacts. Individuals seeking assistance must register with FEMA before the assistance process can begin.
More than 1,400 extra utility workers are in the area, and while crews work to restore utilities, beaches have been closed to tourists until at least Sept. 26. Classes in Baldwin County Public Schools (BCPS) have been canceled through at least Sept. 30 as staff assess facilities and make repairs to school buildings. Students in Gulf Shores City Schools will return to class Monday, Sept. 28. County offices will reopen today, Wednesday, Sept. 23.
In a message to parents Sunday, Baldwin County Superintendent Eddie Tyler said the system takes an all-or-none approach to returning to class.
“I believe we will need some time to get our buildings safe for children to return,” Tyler wrote. “We live in a very large county. Power may be on in your area and your school may not have any damage, but we cannot open schools unless all schools can open. Our pacing guides, state testing, meal and accountability requirements are based on the system, not individual schools.”
Last week, BCPS spokesperson Chasity Riddick indicated logistical problems with buses was also a concern to returning to school this week, while many students and staff members are dealing with property damage of their own.
“Fairhope got nailed,” she said. “A lot of our students, their houses … there are a lot of issues there and not to mention Foley, Elberta, Orange Beach all the way to Bay Minette got hit badly when the eye came ashore. And in the rural communities, nobody has power.”
BCPS counts 31,000 students in 46 schools. Riddick said updates will continue to be sent to parents on the Messenger program, while staff can expect further instruction by email, text or call.
“We have schools without power and for which we do not expect power until later this week,” Tyler explained. “In this new age, we need internet and communications which are currently down so we cannot run many system tests. We have physical damage at our schools including some with standing water, collapsed ceilings and blown-out windows. We have debris on our properties and debris blocking our transportation teams from picking up students. All of this must be resolved before we can successfully reopen.”
As of Tuesday morning, Baldwin EMC reported power had been restored to 85 percent of its system, except for 167 meters north of Interstate 10 and around 9,000 meters south of Interstate 10. Riviera Utilities noted it had “historical damage” to its system, but had restored 42,000 of 51,000 meters as of Tuesday morning.
“After what we just went through, we were very fortunate,” County Commission Skip Gruber said Tuesday. “It will take us a while to get back where we were … it’s bad … but I want to thank our staff and the volunteers we have in this county. It’s unbelievable.”
Dale Liesch and Jason Johnson contributed to this report.
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