By Keith Richburg, Joel Achenbach and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 14, 2008
HOUSTON, Sept. 13 -- Texas and Louisiana on Saturday began a massive recovery effort, including searching for the stranded and missing, after Hurricane Ike, a colossal storm stretching about 600 miles, pulverized the Gulf Coast. Winds reached about 100 mph as the storm flattened houses, ripped the glass windows from downtown office buildings and left a wide swath of flooding and devastation in its wake.
The Category 2 hurricane made landfall at 2:10 a.m. local time and plowed across eastern Texas before being downgraded 11 hours later to a tropical storm with 60-mph winds. In its wake, Ike left about 2.4 million Texans without power, in addition to 200,000 without power in Louisiana.
Texas officials and utility company spokesmen said it could be weeks before electricity is fully restored. At the moment, they said, the major concern is dealing with downed power lines and restoring service to critical facilities, such as hospitals.
President Bush declared 29 counties in Texas as well as part of Louisiana disaster areas and planned to meet on Sunday with FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison and other officials about providing federal assistance.
With one initial estimate putting Ike's insured damage at $10 billion, Ike could become the nation's third-costliest storm, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Andrew in 1992, and tied with Alicia in 1983, previously the costliest storm to hit Houston in recent memory.
In Galveston, the worst-hit city and the place where the massive storm's eye made landfall, authorities were still unsure whether there were fatalities among the thousands of residents who ignored warnings to flee. Rescue workers were moving block by block across 32-mile Galveston Island and had found no fatalities by the 11-mile marker. But they were concerned that there could be deaths on the more devastated western side of the island, which still lay ahead.
"We haven't even gotten to the west end, and I know the west end is totally devastated," City Manager Steve LeBlanc said. Two apartment buildings in the eastern part of town collapsed. "We don't know if there are people in there or not," LeBlanc said.
The physical destruction on Galveston Island was widespread. About 17 structures had collapsed -- 10 because of fires -- and among the buildings lost was a historic landmark, the Balinese Room, a storied, 79-year-old nightclub on the Gulf of Mexico that once doubled as a casino and during its heyday in the 1950s hosted Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and George Burns, among others.
About 100 people had been rescued by police and firefighters since the storm began, LeBlanc estimated at an afternoon news conference.
One of the two roads out of town, the Galveston Causeway, was littered with trees, boats and debris, and had buckled in places; still, a few vehicles managed to make it off the island, he said. No one was allowed to drive onto the island, and the island was effectively sealed to all but rescue crews.
The rescue operation consisted of 52 helicopters, including five Black Hawks, coming from the Coast Guard and the Texas National Guard, and 7,500 Guard troops, Gov. Rick Perry told reporters Saturday at the state's emergency operations center in Austin, the capital.
"Today, we're focused on the search-and-rescue aspect," Perry said. "We prepositioned the largest search-and-rescue operation in the history of the state of Texas."
Despite the extensive physical damage and worries about fatalities on Galveston, Perry said, "the worst-case scenario that was spoken about . . . did not occur."
Houston and Galveston were spared the worst because of a slight, last-minute shift of the storm's track to the north, U.S. officials said in Washington.
The storm hit Galveston Bay "more or less dead on" landing at or just north of the city -- rather than just south as expected -- and its most powerful winds and water also landed to the north of the city because of the rotation of the storm, Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, told reporters.
"That wound up slightly, somewhat diminishing the worst-case scenario," Chertoff said. The shift brought a surge of nine to 16 feet to most of the Houston area, instead of the 20 feet initially forecast. "It still was a very substantial surge, and we should not minimize the impact of that," he said.
Ike was the first major hurricane to hit a densely populated urban area since Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, and Ike was the first to score a direct hit on Houston since Alicia 25 years ago. Houston has 2.2 million residents, part of a sprawling metropolitan area of 5.6 million people.
On Saturday, some downtown streets were largely impassable, with several intersections flooded and many others blocked by downed trees, power lines, dangling streetlights and other debris.
The Buffalo Bayou, which meanders through downtown Houston, overtopped its banks, sending water gushing onto the picturesque Allen Parkway and other adjacent roads.
The 75-story JPMorgan Chase Tower -- the tallest building in the state at 1,000 feet -- was hit hard by Ike's winds, which shattered most of the windows on the eastern side of the building and sent furniture, desktop computers, window blinds and files hurtling onto the streets.
Other office towers, including the old Enron headquarters, also suffered significant damage.
Freeways around the city were strewn with twisted metal from billboards that had toppled. On city streets, some utility poles had snapped and were dangling precariously, while at some intersections traffic lights swung in the winds. A towering McDonald's sign over an outlet on Bellfort Avenue was destroyed, with only the golden arches and a small patch of red left standing. Some cars that were abandoned by their drivers sat in water up to their windows.
Reliant Stadium, home to the NFL's Houston Texans, sustained roof damage, and Monday's scheduled game with the Baltimore Ravens was postponed.
A landmark restaurant, Brennan's, just south of downtown, was destroyed by a wind-whipped fire that erupted after midnight. Three people were injured in the blaze.
With water disruptions around the area, Houston Mayor Bill White, speaking in English and Spanish, advised residents to conserve water when they could and to use bottled water or boil water before drinking it. Damage to the city's water system left large areas with no water pressure from the taps.
Johnson Space Center said its computers were still up and running, and officials said there should be no disruption in communications with the international space station.
Local media reported some damage to Ellington Field, a former Air Force base where several hangars were said to have been damaged or destroyed by the high winds.
Houston is also home to more than a fifth of the nation's fuel-refining operations and 25 percent of crude oil production. There were concerns that a disruption to oil supplies, or damage to rigs or refineries, could lead to a spike in oil prices.
While damage reports from Texas were not expected until Sunday, preliminary indications were that the combination of Hurricane Gustav on Sept. 1 and Ike 12 days later delivered a much weaker blow than the one-two punch of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which landed within 22 days in 2005 and cut U.S. energy production for months.
During a morning conference call, pipeline operators reported that Louisiana refiners expected to be able to make deliveries "in the pretty near future," said Kevin P. Kolevar, assistant secretary of energy for electricity delivery and energy reliability. "We're starting to get good news in from these refineries. . . . It does not appear Ike impeded the recovery in the lower Louisiana area," he said.
"We're going to have to see about Texas," he added.
Richburg reported from Houston, Achenbach from Galveston and Hsu from Washington.