Hurricane Ike begins to batter Gulf Coast

Times Staff Writers

Punishing winds and waves from massive Hurricane Ike smashed into this low-lying barrier island Friday, flooding roads and providing a preview of what authorities predicted would be catastrophic damage to Galveston -- and possibly Houston and other inland areas.

The storm, as big as Texas and packing winds of at least 110 mph, was expected to slam into the coast near Galveston early this morning. Before midnight Central time, hurricane-force wind gusts buffeted the island.

Forecasters predicted that the storm’s “dirty side,” with the heaviest storm surge and highest winds, would batter Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.


There were fears that Ike would knock out power for up to 5.2 million customers and cause extensive damage across southeast Texas before heading into central Arkansas. Even before the storm came ashore, about 850,000 customers -- or about 4.5 million people -- were without power in Houston, the Associated Press reported. And in Louisiana, Ike’s storm surge breached levees, flooding more than 1,800 homes, the AP said.

Waves of roiling brown water from the Gulf of Mexico crashed against Galveston’s 17-foot sea wall, clogging streets with debris. Fast-rising Galveston Bay flooded access roads along Interstate 45, which connects Galveston to the mainland. Water lapped against the front steps of some homes and left streets impassable

“This is probably the biggest storm to hit the Texas coast in my lifetime, and I’m not a young bird,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry, 58, told KTRH radio. Perry predicted that Galveston and towns like Sabine Lake and Port Arthur would be left underwater.

The National Hurricane Center said Ike could strengthen into a Category 3 hurricane, with winds of 111 mph or higher, before making landfall. The center predicted a storm surge of 20 feet -- 25 feet in some areas -- and 5 to 10 inches of rain, if not more, in most areas.

About 600 miles across, Ike is one of the largest hurricanes in recent memory, taking up almost the entire northern half of the Gulf of Mexico.

By late afternoon, the hurricane center reported that water levels had risen 5 inches along the gulf’s northwestern coast. AccuWeather described “a massive wall of water being pushed through the gulf” toward the Texas coast.

Levees breached in southeastern Louisiana near Houma, the AP reported. More than 160 people had to be rescued, and Gov. Bobby Jindal said he expected those numbers to grow.

The U.S. Coast Guard was besieged by at least 200 panicked calls Friday from residents all along the coastline seeking help. Ninety-four people, and four pets, were rescued by helicopters before the aircraft were grounded at 4:30 p.m. because of high winds. Residents climbed onto their rooftops to flag down rescuers, said Chief Warrant Officer Lionel Bryant in Katy, Texas.

“One person down on the coast said they were stranded with 24 other people,” Bryant said. “Our helicopters can only carry six people, along with the crew, if we really shove them in there.”

Bryant said the Coast Guard decided it was too dangerous to rescue 22 freighter crew members in the gulf. Their 580-foot ship was stalled nearly 90 miles from Galveston, directly in Ike’s path.

Late Friday, the Coast Guard reported that the crew had safely weathered the brunt of the storm. A tugboat was expected to reach the ship at noon today. Houston, a city of 4 million, was boarded up and locked down late Friday. Parts of the city and surrounding areas were under curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. Most businesses were closed, and the streets were nearly empty except for police cars and emergency vehicles.

Police asked motorists to get off the city’s freeways by 6:30 p.m., when hurricane-force winds were expected to begin reaching the outskirts of Houston.

“I just saw someone kayaking down Buffalo Bayou,” a main waterway that cuts through Houston, said Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas. “It’s time to get inside.”

Authorities feared widespread flooding in the city. Ike could force water up the seven bayous that wind through Houston, inundating neighborhoods prone to flooding even during ordinary rainstorms.

Brennan’s of Houston, a historic restaurant, was destroyed by fire early this morning, the AP reported. Firefighters couldn’t save it because of the high winds.

What began as a sunny late-summer day turned to turbulent evening as winds picked up and rain began.

Residents who live outside mandatory evacuation areas were asked by authorities to ride out the storm to avoid the kind of highway gridlock that cost lives when Hurricane Rita threatened the city in 2005.

Several hundred thousand residents in low-lying areas south and east of Houston were ordered to leave. Most drove out Thursday and Friday, according to emergency officials, who said up to 90,000 may have stayed to face the storm.

In Galveston, City Manager Steve LeBlanc estimated that up to 40% of the island’s 57,000 residents had ignored the mandatory evacuation.

The National Weather Service had warned residents living in smaller structures on Galveston that they “may face certain death” if they stayed.

At midday, sightseers were flocking to the 11-mile-long sea wall to take photos against a backdrop of pounding waves. John Alvarado, 19, a college student, said he drove from his mother’s home outside Houston “just so I could remember what everything looks like before it goes under water.”

As Alvarado and others snapped photographs, an officer was telling people over a loudspeaker: “Get away from the sea wall now! It’s time to go!”

At Landry’s Seafood House on Seawall Boulevard, Vicente Lopez was packing up and preparing to drive to the mainland. The restaurant, like most other businesses and homes on the island, was boarded up.

“I’m leaving just as soon as I can,” said Lopez, a waiter, as he rushed back inside for another armload of goods.

On 52rd Street, a few blocks from the gulf, 38-year-old Lesley Boyko and her mother, Terry Dennis, 57, loaded up two cars with family possessions, food, supplies, six dogs and a macaw named Belize. They were bound for a friend’s house two hours north, in Huntsville, Texas.

Though her husband, a physician at a local hospital, has ridden out at least three hurricanes on the island, Boyko said, she decided not to risk it.

“The only reason I waited this long was because of the animals,” she said.

LeBlanc said several gas leaks were reported on the island and one house had caught fire. Emergency crews, which had been rescuing residents who were cut off by rising waters, were ceasing to respond at 9 p.m. because they too needed to seek shelter, LeBlanc said.

Residents of Galveston -- which was devastated by a 1900 hurricane that killed more than 8,000 -- were fleeing to the mainland across the I-45 causeway throughout the afternoon. Their cars and pickups, stuffed with possessions and red gasoline cans, were buffeted by winds that whipped up whitecaps in gray Galveston Bay below.

Josh Lichter, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the path of Ike’s eye would determine the amount of damage caused by the storm surge.

“If the storm ends up crossing the coast 20 miles east of Galveston Bay, the surge could be as low as 15 feet,” Lichter said. However, he explained, if the eye of the storm “passes 20 miles to the west, it’ll be the worst-case scenario” because Ike’s counterclockwise winds could push a massive wall of water toward Galveston.

About 572,000 people live in the storm-surge area, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters in Washington that up to 100,000 homes could be flooded and millions of people could be without power for days or weeks. Emergency officials reported Friday night that power was already out in some coastal areas of Texas and Louisiana.

The National Weather Service issued tornado warnings and flash-flood warnings for the area.

When it appeared that the storm would bypass most offshore oil and natural gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, the energy market’s attention shifted to the giant refineries in Ike’s path.

Thirteen Texas refineries -- in Port Arthur, the Houston/Galveston area and Corpus Christi -- were idled as a precaution and production was reduced at a handful of other plants, cutting the nation’s refining capacity by about 3.5 million barrels of oil a day, or about 25%.

Deliveries were halted on pipelines that move gasoline and diesel to the Midwest, East Coast, Colorado, Arizona and elsewhere, resulting in spot fuel shortages. Ports that handle fuel and oil imports and exports were closed as well.

The ripple effects were being felt Friday. Some motorists from Texas and other states were reported to be paying more than $5 a gallon for regular unleaded gasoline.

The nationwide average price ticked up less than a penny Friday, to $3.675 a gallon, according to AAA’s daily survey.

Across the border, Mexican authorities were on alert for flooding from downpours and high seas. The Mexican government told authorities in northern Tamaulipas state, across from Brownsville, Texas, to be ready to evacuate residents along the gulf.

The Mexican weather service warned that heavy rains could cause problems as far away as Nuevo Laredo, which sits along the flood-prone Rio Grande 200 miles from its outlet in the gulf.


Times staff writers Elizabeth Douglass in Los Angeles and Ken Ellingwood in Mexico City contributed to this report.


Texas confronts a wall of water

Hurricane Ike, as big as Texas and as nasty as anything the state has seen in decades, slams ashore. Residents along the gulf besiege the Coast Guard for rescue, and those in Galveston who decided to stay behind might not live to regret it. Houston, right in the path, braces for the worst.



Charting Ike’s path

For the latest information on Hurricane Ike, including photos, damage updates and the storm tracker, go to