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Bolstering Calls for Climate Action, 'Mutant Sloth' Hurricane Sally Leaves Major Mess for Gulf Coast

"The planet, it's screaming to us," said one expert. "When are we going to start listening?"

A person looks at a flooded neighborhood as Hurricane Sally passes through the area on September 16, 2020 in Pensacola, Florida. The storm is bringing heavy rain, high winds, and a dangerous storm surge to the area. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A person looks at a flooded neighborhood as Hurricane Sally passes through the area on September 16, 2020 in Pensacola, Florida. The storm is bringing heavy rain, high winds, and a dangerous storm surge to the area. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

As the West remained engulfed in flames, Hurricane Sally struck the Gulf Coast early Wednesday, bringing a deluge of rain that caused "catastrophic and life-threatening flooding" in parts of the Florida Panhandle and Alabama as the Category 2 storm crawled toward Georgia—bolstering demands for bold, urgent climate action.

Sally, a tropical depression as of Thursday according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC), has caught the attention of climate campaigners, reporters, and scientists not only because of the mess in southeastern states, but also because experts have connected slow-moving storms and "rapid intensification," which Sally underwent before making landfall, to the climate crisis.

"When a storm moves slower, it lingers longer over the same location," Kimberly Wood, a geoscientist at Mississippi State University, told the New York Times. "A rain rate of, say, an inch an hour—that's not so bad if the rain only lasts 30 minutes. But if it lasts for half a day, that adds up quickly."

"There is increasing evidence that storms are slowing down," said Wood—which, as the Times noted, includes a 2018 study on hurricanes stalling near the Gulf and Atlantic coasts and the implications for rainfall. Scientific research has linked the stalling of hurricanes to climate change.

Rapid intensification, which also occurred with Hurricanes Hanna and Laura earlier this year, "is especially dangerous when it happens in the 24 to 48 hours before a storm reaches land," CNN reported Tuesday, as Sally headed toward the Gulf Coast.

"That's because you can go to bed at night anticipating a Category 1, then wake up to a Category 3 major hurricane that brings impacts far worse than earlier anticipated," the network added. "And that is exactly what we've seen with Sally, Laura, and Hanna."

Journalist Emily Atkin offered an analogy in her climate-focused newsletter HEATED on Wednesday, calling Sally a "mutant sloth":

Imagine getting sucker-punched by a sloth with Wolverine blades for claws. You're walking under a tree, and bam—a furry baby drops down and pierces your cheek with a foot made of swords. This is bad for several reasons, but the worst appears to be that this is a sloth. He cannot simply rip his claws from your face like a band-aid. He must pull them out the same way he does everything else: slowly.

This is what I think about when I look at Hurricane Sally. The life-threatening storm bearing down on Alabama and Florida this morning underwent a phenomenon known as "rapid intensification" less than 48 hours before it made landfall. This is essentially the extreme weather version of a sucker punch—or an animal falling out of a tree onto your face. To make things worse, the aggressive storm is now moving at an agonizingly slow pace over land; taking its sweet time pulling its Adamantium claw out of the Gulf Coast's cheek.

While acknowledging the comparison as unpleasant, Atkin noted that so are the consequences of climate change, highlighting findings about rapid intensification and slow-moving storms. As she put it: "The mutant sloths, in other words, are not going away. If we don’t do anything to stop them, they'll likely get worse."

Sally made landfall near Gulf Shores, Alabama, just west of the Florida border, with maximum sustained winds of 105 miles per hour. Floodwaters in both states turned "roads into rivers, submerging cars and sending several out-of-control construction barges into waters along the Florida Panhandle," according to the Times.

"Winds have ripped at buildings, and rising floodwaters forced people to their rooftops for rescue," NPR's Debbie Elliott reported Wednesday from Alabama. "The slow-moving storm dumped torrential rainfall ahead of landfall, and a storm surge more than five feet sent waves washing through homes in Orange Beach."

Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon told the Associated Press that one person died Wednesday and at least one more was missing, without offering further details.

Some places of Alabama and Florida could ultimately see nearly three feet of rain. As Sally battered eastern Alabama with torrential rains early Thursday, the NHC warned of flooding and tornado risks in Georgia and the Carolinas. As of Thursday, more than half a million people across Alabama, Florida, and Georgia were without power.

While residents of those southeastern states still face dangerous extreme weather conditions in the midst of a deadly pandemic, other storms are swirling in the Atlantic. There have been so many named storms already this hurricane season that the NHC only has one left—Wilfred—and then will have to move to the Greek alphabet.

In a series of tweets Wednesday, the advocacy group 350.org noted the incredibly active hurricane season and Sally's destruction. "Let's be clear: We're past the point of arguing whether climate change is the reason for extreme hurricanes like Sally," the group said. "It is. And the fossil fuel industry's decades of deception is to blame."

Reporting Wednesday on wildfires tearing through the West and the hurricane causing "catastrophic" floods in the South, their connection to the climate crisis, and what can be done about future devastation, John Schwartz of the Times pointed out that "these disasters have long been predicted by climate scientists."

Schwartz recalled discussing a 2018 study with Camilo Mora, an associate professor in the department of geography and environment at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The study was about parts of the world possibly facing six simultaneous climate-related crises by the end of the century, which Mora said was "like a terror movie."

"Somebody asked me if there is a good ending to the horror movie," Mora said last week when Schwartz called to discuss the current conditions and climate action. "The good ending was 20 years ago. Now, the choices for the ending are 'bad' and 'terrible.'"

"The planet, it's screaming to us," Mora added. "When are we going to start listening?"

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