/ 13 September 2008

Hurricane Ike slams into Texas coast

Hurricane Ike barrelled into the densely populated Texas coast near Houston early on Saturday, bringing with it a wall of water and ferocious winds that could cause catastrophic flooding along the Gulf of Mexico and cripple the fourth-largest United States city.

Ike, which has idled more than a fifth of US oil production, came ashore at the barrier island city of Galveston as a category-two storm at 7.10am GMT with 175km/h winds.

Ike surprised Texans with its fury and size, roughly the size of Texas itself. It may be the worst storm to hit the state in nearly 50 years and is the biggest to hit a US city since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.

The storm drove a wall of water 6m high and sent huge waves crashing against a 5m sea wall built to protect the city after a hurricane in 1900 killed at least 8 000 people. Most of the 60 000 residents evacuated and there were no immediate reports of deaths in the area.

About 80km inland, the storm lashed downtown Houston’s glass-covered skyscrapers and sent debris flying.

The hurricane has shut down 17 oil refineries on the Gulf of Mexico, the heart of the US oil sector where 22% of fuel supplies are processed.

The National Weather Service warned that people staying in their houses along the coast could be killed and officials said the storm could flood as many as 100 000 homes and send a huge wave across 160km of US coastline.

More than a million Texans heeded evacuation orders and headed inland, but officials said they were worried that many people had stayed in their homes.

”It’s not a time to play chicken with the storm,” US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on Friday.

Galveston hit
As the storm surge swelled on to Galveston Island, most downtown buildings were surrounded by water. Some people who had ignored a mandatory evacuation order called to be rescued. They received no response because emergency workers were ordered off the streets, officials told the Houston Chronicle.

Help was not expected until after the dangerous storm conditions subsided.

”We don’t know what we’re going to find,” Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas told the newspaper. ”We hope we’ll find that the people who didn’t leave here are alive and well.”

Some who thought they would stick it out made a last-minute exit from Galveston.

”When I woke up, my bed was floating in the house,” said David Daubuisson, a handyman who narrowly escaped from his home in Bayou Vista. ”I just took what I could and got out.”

Forecasters warned Ike would send water surging up the Houston Ship Canal, the second-busiest US port, and that strong winds could seriously damage Houston’s skyscrapers.

Massive power failure
Local authorities reported more than one million customers were without electricity in Galveston and parts of Houston, and utilities warned of a massive power failure.

A dawn-to-dusk curfew was imposed in evacuated areas around Houston to prevent looting.

The Coast Guard had to rescue 65 people from rising waters on the Bolivar Peninsula, east of Galveston.

Houston airports were closed and hotels were jammed with those seeking shelter.

Ike could be the third-most destructive storm in US history behind Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Andrew in 1992, experts said. — Reuters