Image: Michael Gardner
Lm Otero  /  AP
With Hurricane Ike offshore, Michael Gardner walks in high water in front of a burning marina warehouse in Galveston, Texas, on Friday. Firefighters could not reach the structure, so they let it burn.
NBC News and msnbc.com
updated 9/15/2008 1:32:27 PM ET 2008-09-15T17:32:27

GALVESTON, Texas, Sept. 12 — The leading eyewall of Hurricane Ike, a 600-mile-wide monster that relentlessly gathered strength in its slow trip across the Gulf of Mexico, began battering the upper Texas coast Friday night, menacing nearly a quarter of a million residents who ignored mandatory evacuation orders.

At 1 a.m. ET Saturday, the eye of Ike was about 35 miles southeast of Galveston, moving west-northwest near 12 mph. Maximum sustained winds had strengthened to 110 mph; at 111 mph, it would be classified as a Category 3 major hurricane.

The northern eyewall hit the coast about 12:30 a.m. ET, spinning off hurricane-force winds 120 miles from the center that reached well inland beyond Houston. It was whipping up a massive storm surge that was expected to top the seawall in Galveston and flood the entire city.

“Hurricanes are not just a point, and Hurricane Ike is especially large,” said Richard Knabb, a senior specialist at the National Hurricane Center. “The damaging winds extend well away from the center of circulation, so this is not going to be just a coastal event.”

About half of the nearly 300,000 residents of coastal Brazoria County stayed behind in defiance of evacuation orders, officials told NBC affiliate KPRC of Houston, as did about half of the 110,000 people in Beaumont. Tens of thousands more in other areas also disregarded the National Weather Service’s warning that coastal residents refusing to evacuate “may face certain death.”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said authorities had done everything they could to evacuate more than 1.2 million people from the coast. “Now it’s time for prayers,” he said.

1 dead, 1 critically hurt
The storm was already believed to have been responsible for one death. A 19-year-old man who was presumed to have drowned when he and three other men were swept into the surf at a jetty on Padre Island, near Corpus Christi, NBC affiliate KRIS reported. A second man was in critical condition at Spohn Memorial Hospital.

Ike’s winds were expected to knock out electricity to about 1 million customers in the region. CenterPoint Energy said it could be up to two weeks before all power was restored.

After a briefing from state and federal authorities, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in an interview with MSNBC that the hurricane “promises to be one of the biggest we’ve ever had.” As many as 125,000 homes could be flooded, with total economic losses as high as $100 billion, he said.

Cornyn and other officials expressed exasperation that so many people were disregarding mandatory evacuation orders. They blamed complacency after Hurricane Gustav, when hundreds of thousands of people left town last month only to see the storm miss the area entirely.

“Because Gustav proved not to be as dangerous as it might have been, a lot of people left their guard down,” he said.

Several residents in low-lying areas close to the gulf told NBC News that they had initially planned to ride out the storm but that they were spooked by the warning of “imminent and certain death.”

“I pray we’re not going to be another New Orleans, but we’ll see what happens,” said Jerry McCain of Freeport.

The Coast Guard began airlifting several dozen residents from their homes at Bolivar Peninsula along the coast Friday after the wind and rain became too much for them.

'Incredibly large storm'
But in Houston, about 30 miles inland, authorities were determined not to repeat the botched evacuation that killed 110 people ahead of Hurricane Rita in 2005. Residents of the nation’s fourth-largest city were told to shelter in place rather than flee.

Meteorologists described Ike as an “incredibly large storm” more than 600 miles in diameter that could take 12 hours to move out of southeast Texas.

It was so broad that its eye was an almost-unheard-of 49 miles across. Authorities said they were concerned that residents could be lulled into a false sense of security after the front half of the storm passed, only to be pummeled when the back half arrived as long as two or three hours later.  

It could also inflict a punishing blow in areas that do not get a direct hit. In Louisiana, levees were breached or topped in Slidell, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. About 1,000 homes and businesses were flooded in coastal Cameron Parish.

But ground zero appeared to be just east of Galveston Island on the Texas coast. Galveston, a barrier island and beach town about 50 miles southeast of downtown Houston, was the scene of the nation’s deadliest hurricane, the great storm of 1900, which killed at least 6,000 people.

Officials in Houston took a calculated risk and told people to stay put, NBC’s Don Teague reported. That order was an attempt to avoid a repeat of the chaos and death that ensued after residents were ordered to evacuate ahead of Rita, when the number of deaths attributed to the evacuation was more than 10 times the toll from the storm.

The oil and gas industry was closely watching the storm because it was headed straight for the nation’s biggest complex of refineries and petrochemical plants. The upper Texas coast accounts for one-fifth of U.S. refining capacity.

The prospect of major damage sent gasoline futures surging by 11 cents a gallon and pump prices to nearly $5 a gallon across the Gulf Coast .

Evacuees mostly accommodated
Thousands of evacuees began flowing into cities and towns across the other parts of the state beginning Thursday night, creating bumper-to-bumper traffic from Houston all the way to North Texas.

“People right now are in a panic. They are not driving their best,” said Cliff Bost, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation. “They are driving faster than they should.”

At a rest stop south of Corsicana, south of Dallas, there was hardly a place to park. Anita Phillips of Montgomery, about 50 miles north of Houston, and her mother stopped there for a break Thursday night after they grabbed what they could and fled.

“All we took were our pictures, a little safe and the dog, and we’re going to Dallas,” Phillips said.

As state-deployed buses began making their last runs from the coast Friday, most major cities reported a steady but manageable stream of shelter-seekers, with only a few exceptions.

More than 3,700 evacuees had arrived by 1 p.m. Friday in Austin, the state capital. City workers were making plans to open a 15th shelter, but the city and the Red Cross said they did not have enough people to handle the load.

“We are very short on volunteers,” said Leslie Schneiweiss, a spokeswoman for the city. “We didn’t get as many people as we wanted.”

In Lubbock, in the northwest part of the state, officials were hoping they would be spared having to accept evacuees. The city was already under a state of emergency after floods from an unrelated storm that Mayor Tom Martin called one of the worst in 100 years.

Freighter calls for help
Coast Guard Capt. William Diehl told MSNBC that the agency had rescued 65 people who were stranded after refusing to evacuate.

Shortly before dawn, the Coast Guard received a radio call for help from a bulk freighter stranded 90 miles southeast of Galveston. Twenty-two men are aboard the 584-foot freighter Antalina, which is registered in Cyprus.

The Coast Guard sent out five Coast Guard and Air Force aircraft, hauling rescue swimmers, but they were forced to abandon their mission because of 80-mph winds and took shelter in Lake Charles, La., Diehl said.

By late Friday, the freighter had ridden out the worst of the storm, and all aboard were fine, said Chief Mike O’Berry, a spokesman for the Coast Guard. A single tugboat was sent out late Friday and was expected to reach the ship by noon, he said.

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