Texas swamped

Hurricane Ike barreled across a wide swath of Texas on Saturday, deluging the city of Galveston with a wall of water, flooding coastal towns and leaving extensive damage across metropolitan Houston.

With wind gusts approaching 100 mph, the 600-mile-wide Category 2 hurricane peeled sheets of steel off skyscrapers in Houston, smashed bus shelters and blew out windows, sending shattered glass and debris across the nation's fourth largest city, with a population of 2.2 million.

Winds covered the main highway to Galveston with a layer of boats and debris, shutting it down. In Orange, Texas, near the Louisiana coast, the sea rose so rapidly that people were trapped in attics and on roofs, and the city used trucks to rescue them, the local police said.

Yet at the end of the day officials expressed relief that the damage was not as catastrophic as federal and state officials had warned it would be, in part because forecasters appear to have overestimated how much the sea would rise in the path of the storm.

“Fortunately the worse-case scenario did not occur,” Gov. Rick Perry of Texas said Saturday afternoon.

There were reports of as many as four people killed, but it could take days to search flooded homes to assess the full impact of the storm, officials said.

Almost the entire metropolitan area lost power, and authorities said more than 3 million people were trying to manage in the dark. Utility officials said it could be weeks before power is restored throughout the region.

The expectations at nightfall Friday that a virtual tsunami of 20-foot waves would crash directly into Galveston, a city of 57,000, were fortunately dashed early Saturday morning when the eye of the hurricane hit shore. City officials estimated the seas rose about 12 feet, though some tide gauges showed a 15-foot rise.

Whatever the height of the surge, longtime residents of Galveston said the damage was still the worst they had ever seen. Scores of people were waiting to be rescued Saturday afternoon by emergency personnel because flooding and debris in the streets made it difficult to deploy firefighters across the city. Late in the afternoon, Air Force helicopters began plucking people from flooded homes and carrying them to shelters on the mainland.

More than 2 million people evacuated coastal areas of Texas and Louisiana before the storm struck, but the authorities estimated that more than 100,000 people throughout the region, including 20,000 in Galveston, had disregarded mandatory evacuation orders.

At least 100,000 homes were inundated by surging waters, while isolated fires broke out around the region when trees and flying objects fell on electrical transformers, causing sparks. Three serious injuries were reported from a fire that broke out in a Houston restaurant.

In Houston, only the downtown area and the medical center section had power as of late Saturday.

“It's going to be weeks before we get power to the last customers,” said Mike Rodgers, a spokesman for Entergy Texas, the primary electricity provider between Houston and the Louisiana border. He said damage to the electric grid was much more widespread than the damage from Hurricane Rita, which hit the area in 2005.

Mayor Bill White of Houston said on local television: “This is going to be a time of testing. This is a time for neighbors to help neighbors.”

He added, “I'm encouraging people to show the nation and ourselves just how competent we are.” President Bush issued a major disaster declaration for 29 Texas counties and said federal officials were prepared to help with recovery efforts.

“Obviously, this is a huge storm that is causing a lot of damage not only in Texas, but also in parts of Louisiana,” Bush said. “Some people didn't evacuate when asked, and I've been briefed on the rescue teams there in the area. They're prepared to move as soon as weather conditions permit.”

Civic leaders asked residents to conserve water and call 911 only in life-or-death situations.

“We don't know what we're going to find,” said Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas of Galveston. “We hope we'll find that the people who didn't leave here are alive and well.”

Despite the devastating flooding in Galveston, experts said the storm surge had not been as severe as some predicted.

Benton McGee, a hydrologist with the United States Geological Survey, said the surge at Galveston, where the storm made landfall, was about 11 feet. Forecasters had predicted a surge of up to 25 feet.

But Stacey Stewart, a hurricane analyst at the National Hurricane Center, defended the government's predictions of a 15- to 20-foot surge and said it would take time to determine the exact rise in sea level. He noted it was high enough to come over a 17- foot sea wall at Galveston and to swamp houses in Orange, Texas.

“I wouldn't go out and say that surge values weren't as high as predicted,” he said. “We have received reports of 15 feet and the sea wall being topped.”

Stewart said a shift in the storm's track to the north just before landfall may have kept the rise in sea levels on the lower side of what had been forecast. The storm's center came ashore at the mouth of the bay, over the east end of Galveston Island, he said, so the most powerful winds and storm surge struck along the coast to the north.

He said Hurricane Ike was an odd hurricane, growing larger than Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, but never developing the same intense winds.

The storm moved through the region more quickly than some previous hurricanes and tropical storms, limiting flooding. By early afternoon, the National Hurricane Center had downgraded Ike to a tropical storm.

Mike Varela, chief of the Galveston Fire Department, said flooding was 8 to 10 feet deep in some areas of the city. He assessed damage to the city as a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10.

Initial reports from residential neighborhoods around Houston suggested that flooding and property damage were not as serious as some had feared early in the morning after hearing reports from downtown, where windows were shattered on skyscrapers and hotels.

By early afternoon, people in Houston were outside surveying the damage. Some were clearing leaves from storm drains; others walked their dogs.

Late in the afternoon, Air Force helicopters began plucking people out of flooded homes in Galveston and carrying them to shelters on the mainland.

Joyce Williams, 58, arrived on the first chopper with her 80-year-old mother, Eunice Haley, who had spent the night in a house with four feet of water on the ground floor. Williams was trying to get her mother out of the swamped house when she saw the helicopter and waved. “I was relieved,” she said.

Steven Rushing, who had tried to ride out the storm at his Galveston home with his family, eventually left by boat. Rushing, six relatives and two dogs wound up at the San Luis Hotel in Galveston.

Rushing said his home had dry carpet at 11 p.m. Water began rushing into his house through light sockets and door cracks around 11:30, he said.

“I know my house was dry at 11 o'clock, and at 12:30 a.m., we were floating on the couch putting lifejackets on,” he said.

Once the water reached the television, four feet off the floor, Rushing said, he retrieved his boat from the garage and loaded his family into it.

“I didn't keep my boat there to plan on evacuating because I didn't plan on the water getting that high, but I'm sure am glad it was there,” he said.

“I've been here my whole life,” Rushing said. “I've never been scared of storms. I'm still not scared of storms. I'm just going to evacuate when they say.” The Associated Press contributed.