Texas threatened with wall of water

Residents in the coastal city of Galveston in Texas were told Thursday to flee from Hurricane Ike or “face certain death.”

“All neighborhoods and possibly entire coastal communities will be inundated during the period of peak storm tide,” the National Hurricane Center said at 8:19 p.m. The warning applies to Galveston. “Persons not heeding evacuation orders in single family one or two story homes will face certain death.”

Cars and trucks streamed inland and chemical companies buttoned up plants as a gigantic Ike took aim at the heart of the U.S. refining industry and threatened to send a wall of water toward Houston.

Nearly 1 million people along the Texas coast were ordered to evacuate ahead of the storm, which was expected to strike late today or early Saturday. But in a calculated risk aimed at avoiding total gridlock, authorities told most people in the nation's fourth-largest city to just hunker down.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff warned residents not to take Ike lightly.

He said a nightmare scenario would be if a hurricane hits up the Houston ship channel and goes through Galveston Bay. On Thursday, Ike was close to being that nightmare.

The storm was steering almost directly for Galveston and, beyond that, Houston, where the nation's biggest refinery and NASA's Johnson Space Center lie in areas vulnerable to wind and floodwaters. Forecasters said the storm was likely to come ashore as a Category 3, with winds up to 130 mph.

NASA closed the Johnson Space Center, including Mission Control, and set up temporary quarters Thursday near Austin and Huntsville, Ala., to watch over the international space station until the storm threat passes. Most NASA aircraft at Ellington Field, just north of Johnson, have been flown to a facility in El Paso.

The storm was so big, it could inflict a punishing blow even in areas not hit directly. Forecasters warned, because of Ike's size and the state's shallow coastal waters, it could produce a surge, or wall of water, 20 feet high, and waves of 50 feet. It could also dump 10 inches or more of rain.

Ike was taking up nearly 40percent of the Gulf. The National Hurricane Center said tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 mph extended across more than 510 miles, and hurricane-force winds of at least 74 mph stretched 220 miles.

“It's a big storm,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said. “I cannot overemphasize the danger that is facing us.”

Hurricane warnings were in effect over a 400-mile stretch of coastline from south of Corpus Christi to Morgan City, La. Tropical storm warnings extended south almost to the Mexican border and east to the Mississippi-Alabama line, including New Orleans.

Most evacuations were limited to sections of Harris County outside Houston, as well as nearby bayous and Galveston Bay. But the 2 million residents of the city itself and 1 million in other areas of the county were asked to remain at home.

“We are still saying: Please shelter in place, or to use the Texas expression, hunker down,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the county's chief administrator. “For the vast majority of people who live in our area, stay where you are. The winds will blow and they'll howl and we'll get a lot of rain, but if you lose power and need to leave, you can do that later.”

Authorities hoped to avoid the panic of three years ago, when evacuations in advance of Hurricane Rita caused a traffic jam so big that cars ran out of gas or overheated.

Ultimately, the evacuation proved deadlier than the storm. A total of 110 people died during the exodus, including 23 nursing home patients whose bus burst into flames while stuck in traffic.

This time, traffic was bumper-to-bumper on the freeway away from Galveston immediately after the evacuation order, but by late afternoon many had made it past Houston, to the north. And just in time: Waves were already inundating the beach on one end of Galveston Island.

Houston Mayor Bill White said one lessons of Rita was that too many people fled who didn't need to. Instead, he asked residents to protect their homes.

Because of Ike's great size, storm surge and gigantic waves are the biggest risk, said Hugh Willoughby, former director of the federal government's hurricane research division.

Bloomberg News contributed.