By William Branigin and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 12, 2008
Hurricane Ike, a massive storm with enormous potential for destruction, bore down on the Gulf Coast of Texas yesterday, prompting authorities to order mandatory evacuations, close the port of Houston and shut down much of the region's oil industry.
Officials warned that a storm surge of up to 25 feet could inundate Galveston Island, scene of the country's deadliest natural disaster a century ago, and cause flooding in the Houston area.
"I cannot overemphasize the danger that is facing us," Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said at a news conference. "It's going to do some substantial damage. It's going to knock out power. It's going to cause massive flooding."
In Washington, officials sounded similar warnings, urging Texas residents to heed evacuation orders and resist complacency in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav, which caused much less destruction than feared when it struck southwest of New Orleans on Sept. 1.
"This is not a storm to gamble with," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said at a news briefing in Washington.
Officials said Ike could also have national economic impact, driving up energy costs in the Midwest and East, disrupting shipping and curtailing production of chemicals.
Hundreds of thousands of Texas Gulf Coast residents complied with the evacuation orders yesterday, clogging roads leading inland from low-lying coastal areas such as Galveston. Long lines formed at gas stations and grocery stores as people stocked up on fuel and supplies.
Authorities in Harris County, Tex., and Houston ordered people to leave their homes in eight Zip codes, including those that cover NASA's Johnson Space Center and the nation's largest oil refinery.
The mayor of Galveston issued a mandatory evacuation order for all of Galveston Island.
Energy companies also evacuated oil and gas production platforms and rigs in the gulf and temporarily shut down nearly all output for the second time in less than two weeks. Hurricane Gustav, which struck the Louisiana coast as a Category 2 storm, also forced the companies to shut down.
The wholesale price of gasoline spiked along the Gulf Coast, rising to more than $4 a gallon amid concerns that a major cluster of refineries could be shuttered for as much as a week.
The National Hurricane Center projected yesterday afternoon that Ike's path would take it directly over Houston after making landfall at Galveston. The storm is expected to intensify from a Category 2 hurricane to a Category 3 (with winds between 111 and 130 mph) by the time it hits late Friday, but its powerful winds will reach shore long before the storm's eye does, the hurricane center said.
Some forecasters said Ike could even become a Category 4 hurricane, packing winds between 131 and 155 mph.
A hurricane that struck Galveston in September 1900 with winds estimated at 135 mph left roughly 8,000 people dead, the highest toll from a natural disaster in U.S. history.
"In contrast to the major hits in the gulf over the past several years, including Katrina, Ike will not weaken significantly before landfall," said Ken Reeves, forecasting manager of the AccuWeather.com service. "As a result, the damage potential is exponentially higher."
Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) said Houston could be hit by midday Saturday with 80-mph sustained winds, accompanied by gusts up to 115 mph and flooding in some areas.
"This water as it comes in could be almost like a tsunami," Dewhurst said on CNN. "Some of our computer models put the entire island of Galveston underwater."
One worst-case scenario for hurricane planners is a giant, Category 4 or 5 storm that strikes the heavily populated Houston area, flooding Galveston Bay and driving a wall of water up the Houston Ship Channel to overwhelm port, chemical storage and water facilities, Chertoff said. Under that scenario, the homes of 200,000 or more residents could be damaged.
"It's coming pretty close to what that nightmare is. It's going to be somewhat south of that," Chertoff said. "We're talking about real impact, not only on the refineries in question but the chemical industry and a lot of the energy and chemical resources that we depend upon in this country."
R. David Paulison, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said authorities have made preparations in Texas to rescue as many as 30,000 people. About 3.5 million people live in potential evacuation areas.
The Interior Department reported yesterday that energy companies operating in the gulf had shut down about 97 percent of U.S. crude oil production there and 93 percent of natural gas production. All 20 refineries between Lake Charles, La., and Corpus Christi, Tex., were expected to close or reduce operations by last night.
The Johnson Space Center, a 1,600-acre facility in Houston that employs about 15,000 people, closed yesterday, and the port of Houston -- the nation's second busiest -- said it was shutting down today. Exxon Mobil announced the temporary closure of the country's largest refinery, its 567,000-barrel-a-day plant in Baytown, Tex., about 17 miles east of Houston. Dow Chemical shut down plants at four sites on the Texas Gulf Coast, including its largest facility, at Freeport.