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.