Ike bashing Texas

Published 9:06 am Friday, September 12, 2008

HOUSTON (AP) – Hurricane Ike, a colossal storm nearly as big as Texas itself, battered the coast Friday, threatening to obliterate waterfront towns and give the skyscrapers, refineries and docks of the nation’s fourth-largest city their worst pounding in a generation.

But even as towering waves crashed over the 17-foot Galveston seawall and floodwaters rose in low-lying areas, it became clear that many of the 1 million coastal residents who had been ordered to get out refused to do so and were taking their chances.

Authorities in three counties alone said roughly 90,000 stayed behind, despite a warning from forecasters that many of those in one- or two-story homes faced “certain death.”

“I believe in the man up there, God,” said William Steally, a 75-year-old retiree who planned to ride out the storm in Galveston without his wife or sister-in-law. “I believe he will take care of me.”

At about 600 miles across, the hurricane was a monster. As it zeroed in on the coast, it trapped 60 people who had to be rescued by helicopter from the floodwaters near Galveston, breached levees in rural Louisiana, and stranded 22 crewmen on a disabled 584-foot cargo ship in the Gulf.

Before sunset Friday, power had been knocked out to hundreds of thousands of customers in Louisiana and along the Texas coast. That number that was expected to climb quickly throughout the night, according to Centerpoint Energy, the primary electricity provider for the region.

As of 9 p.m. EDT, Ike was centered about 70 miles southeast of Galveston, moving at 13 mph. It was close to a Category 3 storm with winds of 110 mph, and was expected to strengthen by the time the eye hit land. Forecasters predicted it would come ashore somewhere near Galveston early Saturday and pass almost directly over Houston.

Because of the hurricane’s size, the state’s shallow coastal waters and its largely unprotected coastline, forecasters said the biggest threat would be flooding and storm surge, with Ike expected to hurl a wall of water two stories high — 20 to 25 feet — at the coast.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said more than 5.5 million prepackaged meals were being sent to the region, along with more than 230 generators and 5.6 million liters of water. At least 3,500 FEMA officials were stationed in Texas and Louisiana.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Friday asked President Bush for a “wide-reaching emergency declaration” in all 88 counties being affected. Perry said this declaration would ensure 100 percent reimbursement for all storm-related costs.

In Houston, authorities instructed most of the city’s 2 million residents to just hunker down to avoid highway gridlock.

Still, authorities warned the storm could travel up Galveston Bay and send a surge up the Houston Ship Channel and into the port of Houston, the nation’s second-busiest port — an economically vital complex of docks, pipelines, depots and warehouses that receives automobiles, consumer products, industrial equipment and other cargo from around the world and ships out vast amounts of petrochemicals and agricultural products.

The oil and gas industry was also closely watching Ike because it was headed straight for the nation’s biggest complex of refineries and petrochemical plants. Wholesale gasoline prices jumped to around $4.85 a gallon for fear of shortages.

The storm could also force water up the seven bayous that thread through Houston, swamping neighborhoods so flood-prone that they get inundated during ordinary rainstorms.

Bachir Annane, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hurricane Research Division, said Ike’s surge could be catastrophic, and like nothing the Texas coast has ever seen.

“Wind doesn’t tell the whole story,” Annane said. “It’s the size that tells the story, and this is a giant.”

Ike would be the first major hurricane to hit a U.S. metropolitan area since Katrina devastated New Orleans three years ago. For Houston, it would be the first major hurricane since Alicia in August 1983 came ashore on Galveston Island, killing 21 people and causing $2 billion in damage. Houston has since then seen a population explosion, so many of the residents now in the storm’s path have never experienced the full wrath of a hurricane.

In southeastern Louisiana near Houma, Ike breached levees, threatening thousands of homes of fishermen, oil-field workers, farmers and others.

Though Ike’s center was heading for Texas, it spawned thunderstorms, shut down schools and knocked out power throughout southern Louisiana on Friday. An estimated 1,200 people were in state shelters in Monroe and Shreveport, and another 220 in medical needs shelters.

High winds forced the Air Force and Coast Guard to abort plans to send aircraft to the Gulf of Mexico in a daring attempt to rescue 22 crewmen adrift on a stalled freighter in rough seas 90 miles off Galveston.

In Galveston, a working-class town of about 57,000, waves crashed over the 11-mile seawall built a century ago, after the Great Storm of 1900 killed 6,000 residents. That hurricane remains the nation’s deadliest natural disaster.

A boat and yacht repair warehouse caught fire and burned to the ground on Galveston Island because the streets were under at least 8 feet of water — too flooded for firetrucks to reach it, Galveston Fire Chief Michael Varela said. No one was believed hurt.

While the Galveston beachfront is dotted with new condominiums and some elegant beach homes on stilts, most people live in older, one-story bungalows. The National Weather Service warned “widespread and devastating” damage was expected.

In Surfside Beach, a town of 800, the police chief asked one stubborn couple, David and Dondi Fields, to write their names and Social Security numbers on their forearms with a black marker in case something bad happened to them.

Dondi Fields, 50, wrote “I heart U” and “for my kids” on her arm. But the couple finally decided to leave. Police used an aluminum boat to reach them, and a National Guard truck carried them to safety.

In Freeport, Drew Ryder, 47, took no chances. He left his plywood-covered home, heading north with coolers filled with food.

“It’s coming, so I’m going,” he said. “It’s not smart to be here.”

Houston’s streets were eerily quiet. Skyscrapers were darkened, and sandbags protected the lobby doors to some.

Gloria Dulworth, who lives on the seventh of a high-rise apartment building, refused to let the storm dampen her plans to celebrate her 81st birthday.

“We’re surrounded by glass, so I’m taking my crystal candlesticks down. It’s been suggested that we roll the rugs away from the door,” in case water seeps in. Other than that, said Dulworth, “I’m going to get some fresh veggies. I have cereal and canned milk. I anticipate being without air conditioning for a couple of weeks, but you can’t do much.”