HOUSTON—A sprawling and strengthening Hurricane Ike steamed through the Gulf of Mexico on Friday on a track toward the nation's fourth-largest city, where authorities told residents to brace rather than flee. Closer to the coast, small towns were mostly empty after forecasters issued dire warnings the storm could kill.
Ike's 105-mph winds and potential 50-foot waves stopped the Coast Guard from attempting a risky helicopter rescue of 22 people aboard a 584-foot freighter that broke down in the path of the storm about 90 miles southeast of Galveston, Chief Petty Officer Mike O'Berry said. The ship was hauling petroleum coke used to fuel furnaces at steel plants.
The National Weather Service warned residents of smaller structures on Galveston they could "face certain death" if they ignored an order to evacuate; most had complied, along with hundreds of thousands of fellow Texans in counties up and down the coastline.
But a stubborn few decided to stay. Emory Sallie, 44, said he had ridden storms out in the past and didn't think Ike would be any different. He didn't believe the dire warnings — he was more worried about the wind, not the flooding.
"If the island is going to disappear it has to be a tsunami," he said, as he walked along the block where his home is located, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. "If it ain't your time you ain't going anywhere."
In Surfside Beach, a small coastal town of about 805, construction worker Bobby Taylor decided to stay, even though his wife, Elizabeth, was leaving and the waves had already been whipped up so high their home was flooded. Police there were using a dump truck to try to reach flooded residences.
"There's no changing his mind so I just have to pray for him and hope for the best," she said, her green eyes misting. "I just worry about him. I think it's going to get a lot worse than he realizes, and then there's no way to get out of here."
President Bush was briefed on the storm Friday by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and spoke with Texas Gov. Rick Perry Thursday.
"I'm deeply concerned about Hurricane Ike. It's a large storm headed to a major population center," Bush said during a visit to Oklahoma Friday.
Officials said inland residents should not flock to the roadways en masse, creating the same kind of gridlock that cost lives — and a little political capital — when Hurricane Rita threatened Houston in 2005. Some evacuation orders were in effect for low-lying sections of the Houston area, but for the most part, people stayed. Large hospitals in the city moved some patients away from windows, but they did not flee.
"It will be, in candor, something that people will be scared of," Houston Mayor Bill White said. "A number of people in this community have not experienced the magnitude of these winds."
The decision is a stark contrast to how emergency management officials responded to Hurricane Rita in 2005. As the storm closed in three years ago, the region implemented its plan: Evacuate the 2 million people in the coastal communities first, past the metropolis of Houston; once they were out of harm's way, Houston would follow in an orderly fashion.
But three days before landfall, Rita bloomed into a Category 5 and tracked toward the city. City and Harris County officials told Houstonians to hit the road, even while the population of Galveston Island was still clogging the freeways. The evacuation itself wound up far more dangerous than the storm: 110 people died during the effort, while the eventual Category 4 storm killed nine.
Residents were scurrying to get ready for Ike, and hardware stores put limits on the number of gas containers that could be sold. Batteries, drinking water and other storm supplies were running low, and grocery stores were getting set to close.
"We're faced with devastation of a catastrophic range," said Randy Smith, the police chief and a waterfront property owner on Surfside Beach, just down the coast from Galveston and a possible landfall target. "I think we're going to see a storm like most of us haven't seen."
Friday morning, Houstonians streamed in and out of a Randalls grocery store near downtown, carts filled with last-minute supplies such as water and Wheat Thins. Ken Wilson, 51, cut short a vacation to California to return home and ready for Ike. He loaded eight gallons of water into his car trunk before heading home to ride out the storm with his wife.
Wilson said it was too late for him to board up his house, though he had stocked up on ice and batteries.
"We'll just tape up to keep things from flying around. I'm apprehensive about how high the winds are going to be, and windows breaking," he said, but still: "What's the philosophy? Run from the water, shelter from the wind? If it's wind: Hunker down."
Texans were getting hit from both sides, as the remnants of Tropical Storm Lowell, a Pacific system, dumped nearly 8 inches of rain on Lubbock in 24 hours, flooding homes and roads. Some businesses closed, and Texas Tech University and other schools canceled Friday classes.
Ike would be the first major hurricane to hit a U.S. metropolitan area since Katrina devastated New Orleans three years ago. For Houston — a city filled with gleaming skyscrapers, the nation's biggest refinery and NASA's Johnson Space Center — 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.
Galveston, a barrier island and beach town about 50 miles southeast of downtown Houston, was the scene of the nation's deadliest hurricane, the great storm of 1900 that left at least 6,000 dead.
Ike swelled into a huge storm, slinging 75 mph winds up to 120 miles from its center. That meant a direct hit on Galveston could still mean hurricane-force winds affecting a stretch of coast halfway to Corpus Christi and well into Louisiana.
The storm is so big, it could inflict a punishing blow even in those areas that do not get a direct hit. Forecasters warned because of Ike's size and the shallow Texas coastal waters, it could produce a surge, or wall of water, 20 feet high. It could also dump 10 inches or more of rain.
If the storm stays on its projected path, it could head up the Houston ship channel and through Galveston Bay, which Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff called a nightmare scenario.
At 11 a.m. EDT Friday, the storm was centered about 195 miles southeast of Galveston, moving to the west-northwest near 12 mph. Hurricane warnings were in effect over a 400-mile stretch of coastline from south of Corpus Christi to Morgan City, La. Tropical storm warnings extended south almost to the Mexican border and east to the Mississippi- Alabama line, including New Orleans.
The oil and gas industry was closely watching the storm because it was headed straight for the nation's biggest complex of refineries and petrochemical plants. The upper Texas coast accounts for one-fifth of U.S. refining capacity. Some service stations in the Southeast were limiting customers to 10 gallons of gas to guard against running out.
Associated Press writers Kelley Shannon in Austin, Paul Weber and Regina L. Burns in Dallas, Juan A. Lozano in Galveston, John Porretto and Pauline Arrillaga in Houston, Diana Heidgerd in Dallas, and Allen Breed and video journalist Rich Matthews and Allen Breed in Surfside Beach contributed to this report.