Hurricane Ike, one of the worst storms to strike Texas in a generation, roared toward landfall late Friday amid fears that it would leave behind tens of thousands of devastated homes and billions of dollars in property damage.
Power went off throughout Galveston late Friday as huge waves battered the city's sea walls and flooded neighborhoods.
Texas officials warned at a news conference that several critical oil refining centers would be underwater if a surge of 15 to 25 feet struck the Galveston Bay area and that damages could reach $100 billion.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, warned that the storm could be the worst to hit Texas in 50 years.
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“It's a worst-case scenario for us,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said. “It's a tsunami, is what you're looking at.”
As of 11 p.m. EDT, Ike was centered about 55 miles southeast of Galveston, moving at 12 mph. It was close to a Category 3 storm with winds of 110 mph.
Tropical storm force winds extended up to 275 miles and hurricane-force winds reached 120 miles from the center of the storm. The storm's winds were so fierce U.S. Coast Guard and Air Force rescue crews were forced to abandon an attempt to rescue 22 crew members from a disabled 584-foot freighter in the Gulf waters off Galveston on Friday.
In Galveston, officials prepared for the worst. Despite an evacuation order and dire warnings that anyone who remained behind faced “certain death” from the storm's surge, Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc estimated that 40 percent of the city's population remained on the island.
“Certainly in my lifetime, this is the worst I've seen,” LeBlanc said. “The worst is yet to come.”
LeBlanc said rescue crews pulled 12 people from high waters on the north side of the island. The island's highly vulnerable west end took a beating from high waves, which regularly crashed over the city's seawall, built after a storm in 1900 killed thousands.
LeBlanc said the city would pull its personnel off the streets at 9 p.m. A shelter of last resort had been opened at Ball High School, and 150 people were already there by mid afternoon.
Others welcomed the storm's arrival with a party.
“We're providing a community service and a stress relief,” joked local bar owner Chris Sellar, 50. “I have hungry people and thirsty people. We're not going to leave when we have paying customers.”
Joining him were nearly a dozen regular customers munching away on fish. One customer Jean Reaves said the storm's danger has been overblown. “We're safe here, but you don't want to go any further south,” she said.
Ike has already made a name for itself as a killer storm.
Since coming to life in the eastern Atlantic Ocean on Labor Day, nearly two weeks ago, it's brought havoc to every land mass it's touched.
In Haiti, hundreds – including elderly women, children and babies – drowned in raging flood waters and thousands of others were left homeless. Ike's fierce winds destroyed homes and government buildings in Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas. The storm also proved catastrophic in Cuba during its two-day march through the island, where five people died and billions of dollars of crops and structures were damaged.
The storm's approach to Texas set off a flurry of storm preparations. Oil companies had shut down 97.5 percent of production in the Gulf of Mexico by Friday morning and were battening down refineries and petrochemical plants in an area that accounts for one-fifth of U.S. refining capacity.
Oil giant ExxonMobil reported evacuating workers from its Gulf Coast offshore platforms and onshore facilities in the anticipated path of the Hurricane Ike, shutting down the daily production about 36,000 barrels of oil and 270 million cubic feet of gas. Wholesale gasoline prices jumped to around $4.85 a gallon for fear of vast shortages. That was up substantially from about $3.25 on Wednesday and less than $3 on Tuesday.
The Houston Police Department covered the windows of its downtown headquarters with plywood and officials canceled all flights from the city's Bush Intercontinental Airport after 2 p.m.
After the chaotic experience of Hurricane Rita in 2005, when more people died during the traffic-clogged mass evacuation than during the storm, state and city officials decided this time not to order a full evacuation of Houston, instead telling residents of certain ZIP codes to leave and urging others to shelter in place at their homes.
Houston Mayor Bill White imposed a 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and by nightfall, the city was shut down. Some retail outlets boarded up their windows – even though Houston is about 45 miles inland from Galveston Bay.
Ruben Reyes and Craig Sury were among those who stayed, spending the hours before the storm's arrival boarding up the homes of neighbors and relatives in southwest Houston. They saved theirs for last.
“We were kind of hoping the storm would turn and we wouldn't have to do our own,” Reyes said, recalling the last time they shuttered their home during Hurricane Rita in 2005.
Others said they wouldn't leave even if ordered to. Marianna Trojan said she'd made the mistake of evacuating during Hurricane Rita in 2005. She said she sat in her car for 10 hours, trying to get to San Antonio.
“I never want to go through that again,” she said.
About 1,000 coastal residents arrived Friday at Texas state parks outside Ike's path with their RVs and campers. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department waived entry fees and offered discounted rates for cabins.
About 200 of the game wardens across the state are on standby in the Houston and South Texas area to be ready to help with high-water rescues, said TPWD spokesman Tom Harvey
President Bush promised that the federal government was prepared to help.
“The federal government will not only help with the pre-storm strategy, but once this storm passes we'll be working with state and local authorities to help people recover as quickly as possible,” he said from Tinker Air Base in Oklahoma.
But all eyes were on Galveston, the scene of one of the worst natural disasters in American history when an unnamed – and largely unheralded – storm stole in upon the city in the middle of the night Sept. 8, 1900, and killed at least 6,000.
On Friday afternoon, waves – some as tall as a two-story building – crashed into the coast, covering the streets with debris and floodwater.
A local television station reported that a popular tourist attraction in the area, Moody Gardens, was already underwater. Galveston city officials announced an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew and said it would remain in effect through Thursday. LeBlanc said Ike is reminiscent of Hurricane Carla, a Category 4 hurricane, which slammed into the Texas coast in 1961, killing more than 40 people.