Howling ashore with 110 mph winds, Hurricane Ike ravaged the Texas coast Saturday, flooding thousands of homes and businesses, shattering windows in Houston's skyscrapers and knocking out power to millions of people.
At first light, it was unclear how many may have perished, and authorities mobilized for a huge search-and-rescue operation to reach the more than 100,000 people who ignored warnings that any attempt to ride the storm out could bring "certain death."
"The unfortunate truth is we're going to have to go in ... 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.
With the winds still blowing, authorities in some places could not venture outside to get a full look at the damage, but they were encouraged that the storm surge topped out at only 13.5 feet - far lower than the catastrophic 20-to-25-foot wall of water forecasters had feared.
By mid-afternoon the storm was downgraded to a tropical storm, as winds died down to 60 mph.
The storm, nearly as big as Texas itself, had blasted a 500-mile stretch of coastline in Louisiana and Texas. It breached levees, flooded roads and led more than 1 million people to evacuate and seek shelter inland.
"Every storm's unique, but this one certainly will be remembered for its size," said Benton McGee, supervisory hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey's storm surge center in Ruston, Louisiana.
Of greatest concern were the more than 100,000 people in coastal counties who ignored mandatory evacuation orders, including thousands of residents of Galveston, the low-lying barrier island where Ike crashed ashore at 3:10 a.m. EDT.
"We don't know what we are going to find," Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said. "We hope we will find the people who are left here alive and well."
In Pinehurst, Tex., north of Houston, a woman died after a tree fell on her home.
Montgomery County Sheriff's Lt. Dan Norris said the woman was in her bed early Saturday when the tree toppled onto her house. Her name was not released.
He also said that residents in Houston and surrounding communities should only use bottled water or boil their water before drinking. Although there is no evidence that the water supply was contaminated, pumping stations lost their power and have not been brought back on line so water is too low in pressure, putting it in danger of contamination.
He also asked those who have neighbors without power, or who are high risk (such as senior citizens) to share their bottled water.
The mayor also reminded people to stay indoors, given the hazards from debris and downed power lines.
Even those who venture forth might not get far: Many roads are underwater and impassable.
Galveston was covered with two to four feet of water, and authorities are planning to close access to the island Saturday, state officials said.
"You can go out, but you can't come in," Allison Castle, spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, told reporters at the emergency operations center Saturday in Austin.
Castle also said the U.S. Coast Guard is preparing to evacuate four critical care patients from the flooded University of Texas Medical Branch hospital. She said the Coast Guard is waiting for winds to drop below 50 mph before conducting the rescue operation.
Firefighters left three buildings to burn in Galveston overnight because water was too high for fire trucks to reach them. Six feet of water had collected in the Galveston County Courthouse on the island's downtown, according to local storm reports on the National Weather Service's Web site.
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. And an evacuee from Calhoun County gave birth to a baby girl in the restroom of a shelter with the aid of an expert in geriatric psychiatry who delivered his first baby in two decades.
"It's kind of like riding a bike," Dr. Mark Burns told the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung after he helped Ku Paw welcome her fourth child.
Thousands of Distress Calls
President George W. Bush participated in a video conference Saturday with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and David Paulison, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency
"As this massive storm moves through the Gulf Coast, people in that area can rest assured that the American people will be praying for them and will be ready to help once this storm moves on," Bush said from the South Lawn of the White House.
Officials in Houston and along the coast reported receiving thousands of distress calls overnight but they were unable to respond because of the dangerous hurricane conditions. Emergency responders were fanning out Saturday morning from the Reliant Center in Houston to take stock of the damage and rescue any holdouts who needed help
"This is a democracy," said Mark Miner, a spokesman for Perry. "Local officials who can order evacuations put out very strong messages. Gov. Perry put out a very strong warning. But you can't force people to leave their homes. They made a decision to ride out the storm. Our prayers are with them."
Ike passed directly over downtown Houston before dawn, blowing out windows in Texas' tallest building, the Chase Tower. Behind splintered shards, desks were exposed to the pounding morning rains, metal blinds hung in a twisted heap from some windows, and smoky black glass covered the streets below.
Documents, marked "highly confidential," were strewn across nearly empty streets.
"It sounded like ice or something hitting the window but really it was glass," said Santa Montelongo, 53, who took refuge inside her office at a nearby building. "We could see it fly by. It got really spooky."
Fires burned untended across Galveston and Houston. Brennan's, a landmark downtown Houston restaurant, was destroyed by flames when firefighters were thwarted by high winds. Fire officials said a restaurant worker and his young daughter were taken to a hospital in critical condition with burns over 70 percent of their bodies.
Police also evacuated industrial workers and media in Surfside because of a chlorine leak at a plant there.
Mindful of the deadly chaos that ensured in 2005 when the fourth-largest U.S. city emptied out ahead of Hurricane Rita, Houston officials evacuated only the lowest-lying areas of the city and told some 2 million others to "hunker down" and ride out the storm at home. Ike was the first hurricane since Alicia in 1983 to land a direct hit on Houston.
"From the beginning, we knew this was going to be a big storm, a frightening situation," said County Judge Ed Emmett, who urged residents to stay inside, even if they think the storm has passed. "Those of us who were around 25 years ago when Alicia came through, we know what it's like to listen to those winds and that rain. But from where we now stand, as the storm goes through and clears our area, we are going to see our community at its very best."
As Ike moved north later Saturday morning, the storm dropped to a Category 1 hurricane, and later a tropical storm.
Galveston Fire Chief Mike Varela said firefighters responded to dozens of rescue calls before suspending operations Friday night, including from people who changed their minds and fled at the last minute.
Six feet of water had collected in the Galveston County Courthouse in the island's downtown, and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston was flooded, according to local storm reports on the National Weather Service's Web site.
"I'm drained. I'm beat up," said Steven Rushing, a commercial fishmerman who tried to ride out the storm with his wife and several family members, including his pregnant 17-year-old daughter, in their one-story brick home on Galveston Island. Early Saturday, he loaded his family into a 17-foot ski boat and headed for safety. The boat ran aground and the Rushings sprinted for safety, guided by lights from police responding to an emergency call made from the boat.
"My family is traumatized. I kept them here, promising them everything would be alright, but this is the real deal and I won't stay no more."
More than 3 million customers lost power in southeast Texas, and thousands more in Louisiana. Suppliers warned it could be weeks before all service was restored. The only parts of Houston with power were downtown and the massive medical center section.
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.
Wilson Shaffer of the National Weather Service said the storm surge at Galveston, where Ike made landfall, was about 11 feet, half of what was predicted.
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.
The oil and gas industry was closely watching Ike because it 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.
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.
Worse Flooding Than Hurricane Rita
Flood watches are in effect in parts of Oklahoma through Sunday as the remnants of Hurricane Ike bring heavy rain and high winds to Oklahoma.
The National Weather Service said bands of showers stretched from southwestern Oklahoma into northeastern parts of the state early Saturday as a cold front moved into southeastern Oklahoma.
In Louisiana, Hurricane Ike's storm surge inundated hundreds of homes in Cameron Parish and flooded parts of Lake Charles - 30 miles north of the Gulf Coast - as rescue teams waited for winds to calm Saturday before launching search and rescue missions.
Storm surge levels in Calcasieu Parish, which includes Lake Charles, exceeded those of Hurricane Rita in 2005, local officials said.
"We've got a major flood event," said Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach. "The flooding is worse than Rita's."
Storm surge driven by Ike has already breached levees in coastal Louisiana and flooded areas still recovering from Gustav.
In Terrebonne Parish, crews were working to plug at least four breaches. A nursing home in Franklin was evacuated overnight, according to Gov. Bobby Jindal's office.
Jindal said more than 160 people had to be rescued from flooding Friday. The search and rescue operations Saturday in southwest Louisiana were expected to focus on coastal Cameron Parish, where roughly 300 residents stayed despite a mandatory evacuation order.
By dawn Saturday, several residents of Calcasieu Parish had called for help as flood waters rose. Rescue teams were waiting for winds to abate before they ventured out into flooded areas in boats and trucks.
"We're prioritizing. Medical and lifesaving calls first. Everything else after that," said Dick Gremillion, Calcasieu's emergency operations director.
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.