Ike Approaches, Nearly 1 Million Ordered to Evacuate

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

Nearly 1 million people along the Texas coast were ordered to evacuate ahead of the storm, which was expected to strike late Friday 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.

Ike was steering almost directly for Houston, where gleaming skyscrapers, 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.

But the storm was so big, it could inflict a punishing blow even in those areas that do not get a direct hit. Forecasters warned that 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 perhaps 50 feet. It could also dump 10 inches or more of rain.

"It's a big storm," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said. "I cannot overemphasize the danger that is facing us. It's going to do some substantial damage. It's going to knock out power. It's going to cause massive flooding."

Perhaps the sternest warning came from the National Weather Service for residents along a Gulf-facing stretch of Galveston Island and neighboring Bolivar Peninsula, which are both under mandatory evacuation orders. People ignoring the orders in single-family one- or two-story homes "will face certain death," read the statement Thursday from the local weather forecast office.

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.

In Surfside Beach, a coastal community about 40 miles south of Galveston, the police chief was so worried that the entire force planned to ride out the storm inland.

"I don't have a crystal ball, but if I did, I think it would tell me a sad story. And that story would be that were faced with devastation of a catastrophic range," said Chief Randy Smith. "I think we're going to see a storm like most of us haven't seen."

Most of the 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."

Traffic jam of people evacuating Hurricane Ike

Traffic lines Interstate 45 leaving Houston as Hurricane Ike approaches the Texas Gulf Coast Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008 in The Woodlands, Texas.

Authorities hoped to avoid the panic of three years ago, when evacuations ordered in advance of Hurricane Rita sent millions scurrying in fright and caused a monumental traffic jam so big that cars ran out of gas or overheated. Ultimately, the evacuation proved deadlier than the storm itself. 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 leading away from Galveston immediately after the evacuation order, but by late afternoon, many evacuees had made it past Houston, to the north. And just in time: Waves were already inundating the beach on one end of Galveston Island.

Some gas stations began running out of fuel, but fuel trucks were called in to replenish them.

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

At 11 p.m. EDT, the storm was centered about 340 miles southeast of Galveston, moving to the west-northwest at 12 mph. Top sustained winds were 100 mph.

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.

Ike is huge, taking up nearly 40% of the Gulf. The National Hurricane Center said tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 mph extended across more than 530 miles, and hurricane-force winds of at least 74 mph stretched for 230 miles. A typical storm has tropical storm-force winds stretching only 300 miles.

Because of its great size, storm surge and gigantic waves are the biggest risk, said Hugh Willoughby, former director of the federal government's hurricane research division. The larger the storm, the longer it hits and the higher waves can build.

And because the water is so shallow along the Texas coast, the waves pile up, creating a big storm surge, he said.

"We're not talking about gently rising water," Harris County's Emmett said. "We're talking about a surge that will come into your homes."

Officials worried that after Labor Day's Hurricane Gustav proved to be a dud in Texas, people wouldn't take the warnings seriously.

"The most important message I can send is do not take this storm lightly," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said. "Do not look back at Gustav and say, `Well, that turned out to be not as bad as some people feared, therefore, I'm going to gamble with this storm.'"

For further general information on preparing for a hurricane, see:

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The Associated Press


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