In the course of American history, few weather events are infamous enough to be remembered by name, let alone the date they occurred.
But today, September 13th, is remembered by Texans as the day Hurricane Ike made landfall. Five years ago this morning, Ike came ashore in the Lone Star State, leaving in its wake one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.
The strong Category 2 storm made a direct landfall in Galveston, Texas, at 2:10 a.m. CDT on September 13, 2008, bringing with it 110 mph sustained winds, over 18 inches of rain in some spots, and a storm surge that reached 20 feet deep along portions of the Texas coast.
Spatially, Ike was a massive storm. As the system neared landfall, Ike’s tropical storm force winds extended an incredible 275 miles away from its eye, and hurricane force winds extended upward of 120 miles from the eye. The immensity of the hurricane was also the main reason it was so damaging. Sustained winds between 80 and 90 mph impacted the densely-populated Galveston and Houston metropolitan areas for a longer period of time than one would normally find in a hurricane, causing additional stress to buildings and vegetation, and ultimately leading to more damage.
The large wind field was also to blame for Ike’s storm surge. As was the case with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (only a Category 3 at landfall) and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 (which was barely a hurricane when it struck New Jersey), the lateral extent of the high winds allowed Ike to shove a larger amount of seawater into the Texas coast than a strong Category 2 hurricane should if it were a more normal size. A surge between 10 and 20 feet deep tore through areas around Galveston Bay, pushing debris some 20 miles inland in spots. The surge washed out roadways and decimated other essential infrastructure (such as water and electricity), essentially cutting Galveston and surrounding areas off from the outside world for weeks and even months after the storm dissipated.
According to the National Hurricane Center, Hurricane Ike was the third costliest hurricane in American history, behind Hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Sandy (2012), respectively, causing over $30 billion in damages in the United States alone. The economic damages only tell part of the story – the old adage that “material things can be replaced, but lives cannot” is why Ike is remembered so vividly by those who lived in its path.
Twenty people died along the Gulf Coast as a direct result of Ike’s winds and flooding, and even more died across the central and eastern United States as the storm’s remnants moved through and produced flash flooding. As a result of the Houston-Galveston area’s dense population (it was home to roughly six million people in 2012), human suffering was particularly amplified in areas that were hardest hit by the storm.
Thousands of families were left homeless after the storm damaged or destroyed their homes. Power outages affected nearly three million people at one point – some living without power for weeks on end. Portions of Galveston and Houston were not only left without power, but these power outages and damage to clean water infrastructure left some areas without running water for a period of time as well. Grocery stores experienced food shortages and gas stations experienced gas shortages. These humanitarian issues were compounded by the hot, humid weather that followed Ike, and brought about a level of human suffering, though temporary, not typically seen in a developed country.
Ike was one of the worst hurricanes to hit the United States, though it is often overshadowed in history as it happened in between Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Today will be regarded by most as Friday the 13th, the superstitiously spooky day where bad things tend to happen. But for residents of Texas, this Friday the 13th is a reminder that bad events are very real. Five years later, while the physical and psychological scars remain, the coast continues to recover from this extreme force of nature.