Massive Ike Menaces Texas Coast

Tommy Scarborough supports himself on a post while he gets a lift from the strong winds created by the approaching Hurricane Ike in Bacliff, Texas, Sept. 12, 2008. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
A colossal Hurricane Ike menaced the darkened Texas coast early Saturday, ensuring a sleepless night for thousands who huddled and waited to find out if a gamble to face the storm head-on could cost them their lives.

Before the eye even crossed land, the first bands were punishing. Wind-whipped waves surged over a 17-foot seawall in Galveston and filled streets with waist-high water. Homes were flooding, hundreds of thousands were without power and there was fear hurricane-force winds could shatter the sparkling skyscrapers that define the skyline of America's fourth-largest city.

Rescue crews worried daybreak would bring a nightmare scenario: Thousands who defied evacuation orders and became trapped in submerged communities.

"We don't know what we are going to find. We hope we will find the people who are left here alive and well," Galveston Mayor Lynda Ann Thomas said. "We are keeping our fingers crossed all the people who stayed on Galveston Island managed to survive this."

The storm began battering the coast Friday afternoon, and the eye was likely to cross early Saturday morning. As of 1 a.m. EDT, Ike was centered about 35 miles southeast of Galveston, moving at 12 mph. It was close to a Category 3 storm with winds of 110 mph. Forecasters predicted it would come ashore somewhere near Galveston and pass almost directly over Houston.

Though 1 million people fled coastal communities near where the storm was projected to make landfall, authorities in three counties alone said roughly 90,000 stayed behind. As the front of the storm moved into Galveston, fire crews rescued nearly 300 people who changed their minds and fled at the last minute, wading through floodwaters carrying clothes and other posessions.

"The unfortunate truth is we're going to have to go in tomorrow and put our people in the tough situation to save people who did not choose wisely. We'll probably do the largest search and rescue operation that's ever been conducted in the state of Texas," said Andrew Barlow, spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry.

In Houston, some low-lying communities that were ordered evacuated flooded, but because the storm struck overnight, officials had no idea how bad the damage was. Storm surge was pushing into a neighborhood near Johnson Space Center where Houston Mayor Bill White had made rounds earlier with a bullhorn trying to compel people to leave. Thousands of homes could be damaged, a spokesman for the mayor said, but it was too dangerous to go out and canvass the neighborhood at the height of the storm.

In a move designed to avoid highway gridlock, most of Houston's 2 million residents heeded orders to hunker down at home. The metro area surrounding Houston includes five million people that would have taken at least 96 hours to evacuate, reports CBS News correspondent Hari Sreenivasan. Ike turned directly toward Houston only 48 hours ago.

On the far east side of Houston, Claudia Macias was awake with her newborn and 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, but this time was different because she was a new mother.

"I don't know who's going to sleep here tonight, maybe the baby," said Macias, 34.

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. 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.

Fire fighters left three buildings to burn Galveston because water was too high for fire trucks to reach them. But there was some good news: a stranded freighter with 22 men aboard made it through the brunt of the storm safely, and a tugboat was on the way to save them.

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.

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 storm also could force water up the seven bayous that thread through Houston, swamping neighborhoods so flood-prone that they get inundated during ordinary rainstorms.

Energy Department Press Secretary Healy Baumgardner said that offshore oil and natural gas production in the Gulf region has been significantly affected by Ike, reports CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller.

The hurricane 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.

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.

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, and flooded more than 1,800 homes. More than 160 people had to be rescued from sites of severe flooding, and Gov. Bobby Jindal said he expected those numbers to grow. In some extreme instances, residents of low-lying communities where waters continued to rise continued to refuse National Guard assistance to flee their homes, authorities said.

No deaths had been officially reported, but crews expected to resume searching at daybreak near Corpus Christi for a man believed swept out to sea as Ike closed in.