GALVESTON, Texas Hurricane Ike bore down on the Texas coast late Friday with driving rain, crashing waves and fierce gusts, threatening to rattle the skyscrapers of America's fourth-largest city, shut down the heart of the U.S. oil industry and obliterate towns already flooded with waist-high water.
Though nearly 1 million people evacuated coastal communities in the days leading up to the storm, tens of thousands ignored calls to leave and decided to tough it out. But as wind-whipped floodwaters began crashing into coastal homes, many changed their minds. Galveston fire crews rescued more than 300 people who were walking through flooded streets, clutching clothes and other belongings as they tried to wade to safety.
"We were going street by street seeing people who were trying to escape the flood waters," Fire Chief Michael Varela said. "I'm assuming these were people who made the mistake of staying."
At 600 miles across, the storm was nearly as big as Texas itself, and threatened to give the state its worst pounding in a generation. It was on track to crash ashore early today as possibly a Category 3 storm with winds topping 111 mph and a two-story storm surge near Galveston, the same site that suffered the nation's worst natural disaster when a storm struck without warning and killed 6,000 more than a century ago.
Officials were growing increasingly worried about the stalwarts, and many communities imposed curfews to discourage looters. Authorities in three counties alone said roughly 90,000 stayed behind, despite a warning from forecasters that many of those in one- or two-story homes on the coast faced "certain death."
"We don't know how bad it will be, but as soon as we do, we will be asking for help," Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc said.
At dark Friday, the Coast Guard suspended a search for a 19-year-old man who was lost in 6- to 8-foot waves off North Padre Island, about 10 miles east of Corpus Christi. Michael Moxly was with three other people on the southside of the Packery Channel Jetty when he was swept away.
In communities all along the coast, rescue crews were forced in the face of heavy wind and rain to retreat and leave the stubborn to fend for themselves. Three buildings were destroyed by fire in Galveston because water was too high for fire trucks to navigate.
"I believe in the man up there, God," said William Steally, a 75-year-old retiree who planned to ride out the storm in Galveston without his wife or sister-in-law. "I believe he will take care of me."
Forecasters predicted it would come ashore somewhere near Galveston and pass almost directly over Houston, with the strongest winds and highest storm surge after the eye makes landfall.
Because of the hurricane's size, the state's shallow coastal waters and its largely unprotected coastline, forecasters said the biggest threat would be flooding and storm surge, with Ike expected to hurl a wall of water two stories high 20 to 25 feet at the coast.
Bachir Annane, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hurricane Research Division, said Ike's surge could be catastrophic, and like nothing the Texas coast has ever seen.
"Wind doesn't tell the whole story," Annane said. "It's the size that tells the story, and this is a giant."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said more than 5.5 million prepackaged meals were being sent to the region, along with more than 230 generators and 5.6 million liters of water. At least 3,500 FEMA officials were stationed in Texas and Louisiana.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry asked President Bush for a "wide-reaching emergency declaration" in all 88 counties being affected, a move designed to secure emergency funding to help defray storm costs.
Ike would be the first major hurricane to hit a U.S. metropolitan area since Katrina devastated New Orleans three years ago. For Houston, 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. Houston has since then seen a population explosion, so many of the residents now in the storm's path have never experienced the full wrath of a hurricane.
Authorities instructed most of the city's 2 million residents to just hunker down to avoid highway gridlock. Residents prepared for a sleepless night.
Before midnight, the storm surge had started to flood some low-lying areas of the city, and some of the seven bayous that snake through the city were overflowing.
"With the water at these levels, you can assume that there is water in homes and homes are damaged," said Frank Michel, spokesman for Houston Mayor Bill White. "But right now, it's dark, the storm is building and we don't have anyone going up and down the streets yet determining the extent of the damage."
On the far east side of Houston, Claudia Macias was trying unsuccessfully not to think about the trees swaying outside her doors, or the wind vibrating through her windows. She had been through other storms, and other hurricanes, but this time is different because Macias is a new mother.
"I don't know who's going to sleep here tonight, maybe the baby," said Macias, 34. "I'm not sleeping."
If Ike is as bad as feared, the storm could travel up Galveston Bay and send a surge up the Houston Ship Channel and into the port of Houston. The port is the nation's second-busiest, and is an economically vital complex of docks, pipelines, depots and warehouses that receives automobiles, consumer products, industrial equipment and other cargo from around the world and ships out vast amounts of petrochemicals and agricultural products.
The oil and gas industry was also closely watching Ike because it was headed straight for the nation's biggest complex of refineries and petrochemical plants. Wholesale gasoline prices jumped to around $4.85 a gallon for fear of shortages.
The storm could also force water up the seven bayous that thread through Houston, swamping neighborhoods so flood-prone that they get inundated during ordinary rainstorms.
Though Ike's center was heading for Texas, it spawned thunderstorms, shut down schools and knocked out power throughout southern Louisiana on Friday. An estimated 1,200 people were in state shelters in Monroe and Shreveport, and another 220 in medical needs shelters.
In southeastern Louisiana near Houma, Ike breached levees, threatening thousands of homes of fishermen, oil-field workers, farmers and others.
In Galveston, a working-class town of about 57,000, waves crashed over the 11-mile seawall built a century ago, after the Great Storm of 1900 killed 6,000 residents.
While the Galveston beachfront is dotted with new condominiums and some elegant beach homes on stilts, most people live in older, one-story bungalows. The National Weather Service warned "widespread and devastating" damage was expected.