/ 12 September 2008

Hurricane Ike threatens Texas with wall of water

Hurricane Ike on Friday moved within 24 hours of striking the densely populated Texas coast near Houston with a possible 6m wall of water in what may be the worst storm to hit Texas in nearly 50 years.

Ike was a category-two storm with 168km/h winds and likely will come ashore late on Friday or early on Saturday as a dangerous category-three storm on the five-step intensity scale with winds of more than 178km/h, the National Hurricane Centre said.

The National Weather Service warned that persons not heeding evacuation orders ”may face certain death” and many homes of average construction on the coast will be destroyed.

Hundreds of thousands fled the island city of Galveston and low-lying counties under mandatory evacuation orders and authorities urged hold-outs to move before Ike’s winds started to make car travel dangerous.

”If you think you want to ride out the storm, and you’re looking at a wall of water coming at you, you better think again,” said Houston Mayor Bill White, whose sprawling city of two million encompasses low areas in extreme danger.

In Galveston — site of a 1900 hurricane that was the deadliest weather disaster in US history — residents nervously eyed the surf pounding the sea wall and splashing over the coast road early on Friday.

”I’ve never seen it like that before. I’m scared, I’m leaving,” said motel manager Roy Patel. He had boarded up the office of the Economy Motel on the sea front and was headed out to the mainland by car.

In central Houston, the administrative hub of the nation’s oil industry 80km inland from Galveston, businesses closed and boarded up windows on Thursday night in preparation for possible hurricane-force winds and flooding. But officials said most residents should ”shelter in place” since the city is above sea level.

A slew of oil refineries located in Galveston Bay that account for about 12% of US capacity were also in the storm’s likely path.

Weather forecasters at Planalytics saw ”major and long-term damage likely at the major refining cities”.

‘This is scary’
Ike comes just 10 days after Hurricane Gustav pounded the Louisiana coast and sent two million people fleeing, but largely spared a New Orleans still struggling with the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But in this active hurricane season that has had the Atlantic and Gulf coasts on high alert, Ike posed its own challenges because of its large scope, bigger than Katrina’s.

Much to authorities’ frustration, hold-outs harked back to the bad experience of the last large-scale evacuation in Texas in 2005, when two million people fled Hurricane Rita, getting stranded on highways for hours and running out of gasoline. Rita largely skirted the Houston area.

”We have pets, we can’t travel,” said Monette Baugh, clutching her poodle as she walked the Galveston sea wall. ”We stayed for Rita, and we are staying this time. You listen to the TV and you are petrified. They have a tendency to exaggerate. But yes, this is scary.”

Local television said Ike looked to pose the biggest threat to the Texas coast since Hurricane Carla in 1961, which struck as a category-four storm and caused over $2-billion in damage and 43 deaths. — Reuters