Thousands flee as Hurricane Ike's 'wall of water' threatens Texas

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Hurricane Ike is close to striking the densely populated Texas coast near Houston in what may be the worst storm to hit the state in nearly 50 years.

Ike was likely to come ashore early today as a dangerous category 3 storm on the five-step intensity scale, with winds of more than 111mph, the US National Hurricane Centre said. A 20ft wave is expected to strike the coast.

Yesterday, the storm had been classed as category 2, with winds of 105mph.

The National Weather Service warned that people who do not take heed of the evacuation orders "may face certain death" and many homes of average construction on the coast will be destroyed. Hundreds of thousands fled the island city of Galveston and evacuation orders have been issued for low-lying counties as authorities urged people to move before the winds started to make car travel dangerous.

"If you think you want to ride out the storm, and you're looking at a 20ft wall of water coming at you, you better think again," said Bill White, Houston's Mayor.

In Galveston, the site of a hurricane in 1900 that was the deadliest weather disaster in American history, the surf pounded the sea wall and splashed over the coast road. "I've never seen it like that before. I'm scared, I'm leaving," said Roy Patel, the manager of the Economy Motel on the sea front, before boarding up the office and heading to the mainland by car.

In central Houston, the administrative hub of the US oil industry, about 50 miles inland from Galveston, businesses closed and boarded up windows on Thursday night. But officials said most residents should "shelter in place" since the city is some 50 feet above sea level.

Several oil refineries in Galveston Bay, which account for 12 per cent of US capacity, were in the storm's likely path. American crude futures rose $0.50 to $101.38 a barrel while weather forecasters at Planalytics predicted "major and long-term damage likely at the major refining cities".

Ike comes 10 days after Hurricane Gustav pounded the Louisiana coast and sent two million people fleeing. It spared New Orleans, which is still struggling with the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Ike is predicted to be bigger than Katrina and winds could extend out up to 120 miles.

By midday yesterday, the hurricane centre said Ike was 230 miles south-east of Galveston, moving west-northwest at 13mph.

Some people, however, have said that they would not leave. "We have pets, we can't travel," said Monette Baugh, clutching her poodle as she walked the Galveston sea wall. "They have a tendency to exaggerate. But yes, this is scary."