Devastating Ike batters Texas

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The Independent US

Massive Hurricane Ike ravaged southeast Texas today, battering the coast with driving rain and ferocious wind gusts as residents who decided too late they should have heeded orders to evacuate made futile calls for rescue.

It remained unclear how many people may have perished as the worst of Ike was passing over the Houston-Galveston area. But even before daylight arrived, damage was considered extensive. Thousands of homes and government buildings flooded, roads were washed out, 2.9 million people lost power and several fires burned unabated as crews could not reach them.

The biggest fear was that tens of thousands of people had defied orders to flee and would need to be rescued from submerged homes and neighborhoods.

"The storm has yet to pass and I know there are people concerned about their lives," President George W. Bush said today from the South Lawn of the White House after he participated in a video conference with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and David Paulison, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"Some people didn't evacuate when asked," Bush said. "I've been briefed on the rescue teams there in the area. They're prepared to move as soon as weather conditions permit. Obviously, people on the ground there are sensitive to helping people and are fully prepared to do so."

As dawn broke, emergency officials were fielding pleas for help from residents along the coast who remained behind and were trapped in their homes. Texas Gov. Rick Perry mobilized 7,500 National Guard troops and his homeland security chief, Steve McGraw, said rescues would start as soon as crews could safely go out.

The eye of the storm powered ashore at 07:10 GMT at Galveston with 110 mph winds, just shy of a Category 3 storm. Because Ike was so huge — nearly as big as Texas itself — hurricane winds pounded the coast for hours before landfall and would continue through much of the morning, with the worst winds and rain after the center came ashore, forecasters said.

By 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT), the stubborn storm system had weakened to a Category 1 with winds near 90 mph as it moved inland and passed Houston. It was expected to turn north toward Arkansas later in the day.

Wilson Shaffer, chief of the National Weather Service's evaluation division, said the storm surge was smaller than predicted, but the region was not out of the clear as the storm continued on its path. The highest surge today morning was about 13.5 feet (4 meters) at Sabine Pass in Texas, according to tidal gauges. The surge at Galveston was 11 feet (3.3 meters), about half of what was predicted.

Forecasters had warned that the surge could reach 25 feet (7.5 meters), which would have been the highest in recorded history in Texas, above 1961's Hurricane Carla, a storm that brought a 22-foot (6.6-meter) wall of water.

In Houston, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) inland, emergency operators received about 1,250 calls in 24 hours. Streets around the city's theater district became rushing streams and shards of glass fell from the sparkling skyscrapers that define the skyline of America's fourth-largest city. Residents were urged to stay inside today morning even if they thought the storm had passed.

The only parts of the city with power were downtown and the massive medical center section. Suppliers warned it could be weeks before service was restored.

Though 1 million people fled coastal communities near where the storm made landfall, authorities in four counties alone said roughly 140,000 ignored mandatory evacuation orders. Other counties were unable to provide numbers but officials were concerned many had stayed behind.

"We don't know what we are going to find," Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said. "We hope we will find the people who are left here alive and well."

As the front of the storm moved into Galveston, fire crews rescued nearly 300 people who changed their minds and fled at the last minute. Emergency crews received about 100 calls for help during the night but were not able to immediately respond.

Even before Ike made landfall, Coast Guard helicopters had rescued 103 people in the Bolivar Peninsula near Galveston Island, some from roofs and others from cars, said Petty Officer 3rd Class Ayla Stevens.

Some 30 miles (50 kilometers) inland, the storm surge pushing up through Galveston Bay was sending water into a neighborhood near Johnson Space Center where Houston Mayor Bill White had made rounds earlier with a bullhorn trying to compel people to leave. Nearby, the popular Kemah Boardwalk at the mouth of Galveston Bay, ringed by million-dollar homes, was submerged, state officials said.

Across Houston's downtown, car alarms screeched and light poles swayed like small trees.

The restaurant Brennan's of Houston, a downtown institution for more than four decades, was destroyed by flames. Fire officials said a restaurant worker and his young daughter were taken to a hospital in critical condition with burns over 70 percent of their bodies.

Before it came ashore, the storm was 600 miles (960 kilometers) across. Because of the hurricane's size, the state's shallow coastal waters and its largely unprotected coastline, forecasters said the biggest threat would be flooding and the storm surge at the coast.

But there was some good news: a stranded freighter with 22 men aboard made it through the brunt of the storm safely, and a tugboat was on the way to save them. And an evacuee from Calhoun County gave birth to a baby girl in the restroom of a shelter with the aid of an expert in geriatric psychiatry who delivered his first baby in two decades.

"It's kind of like riding a bike," Dr. Mark Burns told the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung after he helped Ku Paw welcome her fourth child.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said more than 5.5 million prepackaged meals were being sent to the region, along with more than 230 generators and 5.6 million liters of water. At least 3,500 FEMA officials were stationed in Texas and Louisiana.

If Ike is as bad as feared, the storm could travel up Galveston Bay and send a surge up the Houston Ship Channel and into the port of Houston. The port is the second-busiest in the U.S., and is an economically vital complex of docks, pipelines, depots and warehouses that receives automobiles, consumer products, industrial equipment and other cargo from around the world and ships out vast amounts of petrochemicals and agricultural products.

The storm also could force water up the seven bayous that thread through Houston, swamping neighborhoods so flood-prone that they get inundated during ordinary rainstorms.

The oil and gas industry was closely watching Ike because it was headed straight for the nation's biggest complex of refineries and petrochemical plants. Wholesale gasoline prices jumped to around $4.85 a gallon for fear of shortages.

Ike is 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. Houston has since then seen a population explosion, so many of the residents now in the storm's path have never experienced the full wrath of a hurricane.

No deaths were officially reported, but crews expected to resume searching at daybreak near Corpus Christi for a man believed swept out to sea as Ike closed in.