By Keith B. Richburg and Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 13, 2008
HOUSTON, Sept. 12 -- Hurricane Ike, a massive storm almost the size of Texas, strengthened late Friday and churned toward that state's coast, forcing the shutdown of refineries and oil and gas rigs, and leaving millions of people in and around the nation's fourth-largest city hunkered down and preparing for the worst.
The island city of Galveston was battered by fierce winds on the outer edge of the storm, while 50 miles inland, authorities braced for a potential catastrophe, should Ike made a direct hit on Houston and its 2.2 million inhabitants. The city's compact downtown is a clutch of vulnerable, glass-encased skyscrapers that house headquarters for some of the world's largest energy companies.
The storm, packing winds of 110 mph, threatened to inundate more than 100,000 homes, cut power to as many as 7.8 million people and disrupt 40 drinking-water and wastewater-treatment facilities.
"It's a worst-case scenario for us," Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said. "It's a tsunami, is what you're looking at." He said the storm surge is predicted to send 20-foot waves rushing into the Houston Ship Channel -- which leads to one of the world's busiest ports -- and 24-foot waves to Port Arthur, 90 miles to the east.
"My biggest concern is going to be the recovery after a storm of this size," Perry said in a television interview.
About 1.2 million people have been evacuated from coastal areas, including 12,500 "special-needs evacuees" such as hospital patients and the elderly, Perry said.
The brunt of the storm was focused on Galveston, where the hurricane eye was expected to make landfall early Saturday morning. Forecasters had used stark language to warn that anyone who stayed on Galveston Island risked "certain death."
Even so, about 40 percent of the city's 57,000 residents decided to stick it out, City Manager Steven LeBlanc said.
Information on how the islanders were faring was scarce Friday night, LeBlanc said, particularly from the west end, which is unprotected by a seawall.
"We haven't been able to get to the west end since early in the afternoon," he said.
Galveston police and firefighters were ordered off the streets shortly after sunset, after having performed some 50 rescues during the day. LeBlanc said he had received many calls from people who were shocked by how quickly the water rose and who fled or wanted to leave at the last minute.
Those who had not left Galveston were urged to shelter in place rather than risk the drive on the wind-buffeted interstate connecting the island to the mainland, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said. The city opened a "shelter of last resort" in a high school, but it has no cots, just food and water. About 260 people had taken shelter there by Friday evening.
By that time, downtown Galveston was under four feet of water, with the center of the storm still more than 50 miles offshore.
"We don't know what we're going to find tomorrow," Thomas said.
Downtown Houston is about 50 feet above sea level, so there is no fear of major flooding there. The biggest concern is skyscrapers' glass breaking and falling. On the upper floors of the tallest buildings, Ike's winds will feel even more powerful, experts said.
Late Friday evening, even before the worst of the storm had landed, CenterPoint Energy, the local power company, reported that 415,000 of its customers in the Houston-Galveston area had lost electricity. A company spokesman, Floyd LeBlanc, predicted that half of CenterPoint's 2 million customers would soon be without power.
"We're expecting a lot of damage. We're expecting trees and tree limbs to break down power lines," LeBlanc told a local television station. He said it would likely be two or three weeks before power is fully restored.
Perry asked President Bush for a "wide-reaching emergency declaration" in all 88 counties being affected by the storm, in order to secure funding.
In contrast to the evacuation of Galveston, state and city officials decided this time not to order a full evacuation of Houston, perhaps mindful of the chaotic experience of Hurricane Rita in 2005, when more people died during the traffic-clogged mass evacuation than during the storm. Instead, officials told residents of certain Zip codes to leave and urged others to shelter in place at their homes.
People appeared to be taking heed: Streets and freeways were largely empty by early evening, and most stores in the city's ubiquitous strip malls started to lock their doors and board up their windows just after lunch. The few businesses that remained open had closed by late afternoon, as Ike's initial winds and the first drops of rain could be felt here.
At Sugar Park Plaza, a strip mall in southwest Houston, the Subway sandwich shop ran out of bread just after noon because of people rushing in to stock up; one woman came in at noon to pick up 50 pre-ordered sandwiches. The Marshalls department store and the Home Depot across the street were closed, their windows boarded.
One store doing a brisk morning business was the Ace check-cashing shop. Next door, Carter's Country, a guns and ammunition store, was also open and making sales before closing in the afternoon.
Cars lined up at gas stations, heeding freeway bulletin boards that warned drivers to fill up their tanks, but there was no sign of panic or gasoline stockpiling.
Oil production in the Gulf of Mexico and refining on the Texas coast have been suspended while the storm nears.
Energy officials said it will most likely be Sunday before assessments could determine the extent of disruption to the production, distribution and supply of such products as gasoline, home heating oil, synthetic rubber and ethylene, the plastic used in water bottles. The Houston area is home to a number of large chemical plants.
In Galveston, most of the story was near the seawall, where a memorial called the Praying Hand commemorates the tragic 1900 storm that killed at least 6,000 people in the nation's worst natural disaster.
Cathy Blume, a local signmaker, couldn't stay in her house, which isn't protected by the seawall, so she had planned to stay with a friend in what seemed like a safe house made of brick. But she discovered that her friend had departed for Houston.
"I'm not staying here by myself; I'm a widow," she said as she checked into the San Luis Hotel on Seawall Boulevard, across from the beach. Built on top of an old Army bunker, the hotel is the de facto media headquarters for Ike.
Lisa Cardona, 36, was riding out the storm despite the mandatory evacuation order. "I have pets, plus this is my mother's property," she said as two men, one shirtless, listened to loud music from a boombox set up in her side yard. "I have a cat I'm trying to get inside."
Was she worried? "I'm starting to get worried now," she replied. "It's starting to surge."
Richburg reported from Houston, and Achenbach reported from Galveston. Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu in Washington contributed to this report.