Texas, September 13 – Gigantic Hurricane Ike pounded the Texas Gulf coast on Friday, flooding parts of Galveston and threatening "catastrophic" destruction as it heads on a path towards Houston, the fourth largest US city.
Gargantuan waves smashed over the city’s sea wall as the center of the storm at 0100 GMT Saturday was about 115 kilometers (70 miles) southeast of Galveston, moving at near 20 kilometers (13 miles) an hour.
Ike, a sprawling system the size of Texas itself, was packing winds of 175 kilometers (110 miles) an hour, just shy of becoming a powerful Category Three storm on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale, the National Hurricane Center reported.
Ike was expected to plow ashore early Saturday, with a direct hit on Galveston and Houston.
In Galveston, the power went out across the island just before 0100 GMT Saturday, plunging the storm-stricken city into darkness.
Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas ordered a dusk-to-dawn curfew starting Friday and ending Monday morning. Chocolate-colored seawater flooded the streets of Galveston as the storm surge intensified throughout the day, spoiling the city’s potable water system.
"Expect the unexpected," said city manager Steve Le Blanc. "The worst is yet to come."
Despite the dire warnings, only 38,000 of Galveston island’s 58,000 residents evacuated, Mary Jo Naschke, who works in the city’s mayor’s office, told AFP.
Two blazes broke out in the afternoon. Flames shot out of an unattended Galveston home near the oceanfront, while thick smoke from a ship repair warehouse darkened the sky over the city.
Firefighters, restricted by the high water, had to let the structures burn.
"We can’t get close enough," Galveston fire chief Michael Varela told AFP. "We have no knowledge of anybody being there."
All neighborhoods and possibly entire coastal communities along Galveston Bay, which reaches 25 miles (40 kilometers) inland from its namesake barrier island to the heart of Houston, "will be inundated during the period of peak storm tide," the Hurricane Center said.
"Persons not heeding evacuation orders in single family, one- or two-story homes will face certain death," it added.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff described Ike’s arrival as "potentially catastrophic."
Louis Trejo removes some final items from his home on Galveston Bay in
"This is a monster storm in terms of the flooding potential," added Chertoff. The storm surge "is going to inundate large parts of the Texas coast."
Texas Governor Rick Perry described Ike on CNN as "a monster of a storm," and compared the storm surge Ike will generate — high enough to engulf a two-story home — to a tsunami.
Referring to the holdouts that refused to flee the coastal area, he said on Fox News: "Individuals who think they are tougher, stronger than Mother Nature — God be with them."
Perry said some 1.2 million people had evacuated coastal Texas ahead of the storm.
Houston, the fourth largest US city with a metropolitan area population topping five million people, is just a few miles from the bay, and destruction there and along the coast in the hurricane zone is expected to be massive.
Jack Colley, from the Texas Department of Emergency Management, said officials estimated the storm’s economic impact would be "somewhere in between the 80-billion dollar and 100-billion-dollar range."
"With Houston being home to some of the largest petrochemical complexes in the world, there’s a tremendous amount of infrastructure there," Colley said.
Mac McKim secures his sailboat to a dock which has been flooded by water pushed
Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison also warned of the storm’s economic consequences, saying "it’s not just a regular rain and wind hurricane."
"The economic impact is going to be huge. People are much more concerned about this one than I have seen in a long long time," she said on Fox News.
Around 5.6 million people live in the Houston metropolitan region, which stretches down to the coast.
Oil and gas production in the Gulf was largely shut off, though the US Department of Energy said Ike appeared likely to spare most rigs and platforms there.
President George W. Bush, a former Texas governor, said he was "deeply concerned" about the threat the storm posed to the region.
Galveston has faced calamity before. The deadliest hurricane in US history, the "Great Storm" of 1900, killed at least 8,000 people when it smashed into Galveston and Houston.
Ike has left more than 100 dead across the Caribbean and sparked hurricane and tropical storm warnings from Louisiana to Mexico.
Separately, US Coast Guard rescuers called off an attempt to rescue 22 sailors stranded aboard a Cyprus-flagged freighter that lost power in the Gulf of Mexico as it tried to steam out of Ike’s way, but added they would seek to remain in radio contact with the crew.