/ 13 September 2008

Hurricane Ike ravages Texas with massive flooding

Hurricane Ike powered across the densely populated Texas coast and through Houston on Saturday, bringing ferocious winds and a wall of water that flooded hundreds of miles of coastline and paralysed the fourth-largest United States city.

Ike, a massive hurricane that has idled more than a fifth of US oil production, came ashore at the barrier island city of Galveston as a strong category-two storm at 7.10am GMT with heavy rains and sustained 175km/h winds, the National Hurricane Centre said.

The raging storm flooded Galveston and submerged a five-metre sea wall built to protect the city after a 1900 hurricane killed at least 8 000 people. More than half its 60 000 residents fled, but the fate of those who stayed to ride out the storm remained unclear.

Oil refineries along the western shore of Galveston Bay as well as Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre may have been spared the worst of the flooding. But the storm’s huge size meant that it flooded parts of Louisiana, prompting a flurry of overnight rescues far from its centre, authorities said.

Grandmother Sherry Gill spent the night in League City, Texas, roughly halfway between Galveston and Houston, despite an evacuation order, huddling with her family and listening to the wind howling over her shuttered home.

”It was a night of sheer terror. I thought the roof was going to lift off,” Gill said.

Alicia Cahill, a spokesperson for the city of Galveston, said there had been no confirmed reports of casualties. Local officials said that while Ike was formidable, it did not bring the six-metre tidal surge over Galveston they had feared.

About 80km inland, Ike lashed downtown Houston’s skyscrapers, blowing out windows and sending debris flying through water-logged streets. About 4,5-million people around Houston and Beaumont could be without electricity for weeks, Floyd LeBlanc of CenterPoint Energy said.

Roofs were ripped off houses, and rising waters, downed trees and fallen power lines left many streets impassable. There were many windows broken in the 75-storey Chase Tower, the tallest building in Houston.

Ike was the biggest storm to hit a US city since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.

Louisiana also hit
Ike also hammered central and western Louisiana, flooding whole coastal communities and sparking a flurry of overnight rescues of stranded residents.

An estimated 10 000 homes in Terrebonne Parish were flooded or expected to be flooded as water levels continue to rise into Sunday, officials there said. About 100 elderly residents were evacuated overnight when flooding overwhelmed a nursing home in Franklin, Louisiana, state emergency operations spokesperson Chris Macaluso said.

Ike was downgraded to a category one on the hurricane intensity scale at 1pm GMT as it moved inland with top sustained winds near 145km/h and moving north.

Strong winds ripped for hours through Houston, a city that is home to 2,2-million people and with a metropolitan area of 5,6-million residents.

Ike’s centre was expected to move through eastern Texas into Arkansas on Saturday night. Forecasters warned residents of a vast area — Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Indiana and Michigan — stretching all the way to the border with Canada, to prepare for heavy rains as Ike stormed north-east.

”We expected a major storm and our expectations unfortunately came true,” said Mark Miner, a spokesperson for Texas Governor Rick Perry. ”The weather needs to clear up a little bit to see just what the devastation was.”

In Galveston, emergency officials were sending patrols into the flooded streets to begin assessing damage.

”We do have reports of damage, but we’re just now to the point where it is safe for our units to get out and start making assessments,” Galveston County Emergency Management operations manager Lee Lockwood said.

Twenty-two percent of US fuel production capacity was down, as Ike shut 13 refineries and one remained closed due to Hurricane Gustav, which hit neighbouring Louisiana earlier this month.

Brad Penisson, a spokesperson for the joint operations of south-east Texas emergency management agencies, covering three counties that are home to 450 000 people, said that area’s refineries appeared to have sustained little or no damage.

”This is a huge storm that is causing a lot of damage, not only in Texas, but also in parts of Louisiana,” President George Bush, a former governor of Texas, said at the White House.

He said the government would monitor gas prices to prevent extraordinary price increases because of Ike. – Reuters