, HOUSTON, September 11 – Texas authorities have ordered coastal evacuations as deadly Hurricane Ike strengthened to a Category Two storm in the Gulf of Mexico and headed toward the southern US coast after ravaging Cuba and the Caribbean.
Ike could slam into the Texas coast immediately south of the port of Galveston late Friday or early Saturday as an even stronger storm, the National Hurricane Centre forecast.
"Ike is expected to become a major hurricane by Thursday," the centre said, referring to storms of Category Three and above intensity on the five-level Simpson-Saffir scale.
Texans living on the Gulf Coast were reminded of the "Great Storm" of 1900, an infamous hurricane that killed some 6,000 people and produced a storm surge that submerged much of Galveston.
Area residents also have fresh memories of Hurricane Rita, a powerful system heading in their direction in 2005 just weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.
Two million people tried to flee the Galveston-Houston area before Rita hit, creating massive highway traffic jams with 20-hour backups. Rita however shifted in the last hours and made landfall east near the border with Louisiana, and the damage to the area was minimal.
Galveston neighbours Celia Padnos and Leslie LeGrande, who said they were jaded by their Rita experience, plan to say at home if Ike is anything less than a Category Three hurricane.
"I hate driving and I ended up driving for 14 hours to Austin (normally a 3.5 hour drive) with one cat, all my family photos, food and two young children in the car," said Padnos, recalling Hurricane Rita.
"Unless it’s really bad, we don’t want to go anywhere," said LeGrande.
If forced to evacuate, LeGradne hopes that hotels will be available, during the Rita scare, many hotels were already filled with Katrina victims, she said.
Officials in the Texas coastal city of Corpus Christi said they were reluctant to order a mandatory evacuation on Wednesday.
"We have a huge oil and gas industry presence here with refineries and oil and gas processing facilities," said city spokeswoman Kim Womack. "We don’t want to issue a mandatory evacuation because that would completely shut down operations and make recovery very difficult."
Residents however were busy preparing for the storm. "A lot of boards are going up around town," Womack said. "Everyone is in a ready state."
Officials in Houston, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) inland from Galveston, placed emergency personnel on standby to deal with Ike’s imminent arrival.
Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell said it would complete evacuation of personnel from its offshore installations by Wednesday. The bulk of US oil refineries are located in the Gulf of Mexico.
President George W. Bush declared an emergency in Texas, freeing up federal aid to boost local efforts.
Governor Rick Perry, who declared a disaster threat in the region on and near the Texas Gulf coast on Monday, said state officials began helping evacuate ill, elderly and poor residents in coastal areas.
At midnight GMT Thursday Ike’s centre was located about 1,125 kilometres (700 miles) east of Brownsville, Texas, on the border with Mexico, the centre said. The storm was moving towards the northwest at near 13 kilometres (eight miles) an hour.
Ike packed winds of near 160 kilometres (100 miles) an hour, with higher gusts, though it is expected to gain strength over the next 24 hours as it travels over the warm open waters of the Gulf.
The centre described Ike as "a large tropical cyclone" with hurricane force winds extending outward up to 185 kilometres (115 miles).
Ike earlier left a trail of destruction as it raged over Cuba and killed more than 100 people across the Caribbean.
In Haiti, several hundred were killed by a rapid succession of powerful tropical storms and hurricanes over the past month including Ike.
The United States said it will provide 10 million dollars in aid to help storm-ravaged Haiti recover from deadly tropical storms, while the United Nations has called for some 107 million dollars in humanitarian aid.
Ike crashed into Cuba on Tuesday barely 100 kilometres (60 miles) west of the capital Havana, sparking new flooding in a region blasted two weeks earlier by Hurricane Gustav.
Five Cubans were confirmed dead after some 2.6 million people were moved to safer ground as a safety measure. More than 200,000 homes were damaged, officials said.