FREEPORT, Texas - Thousands of residents of Texas' vulnerable Gulf Coast clogged highways heading inland yesterday as they heeded mandatory evacuation orders. Hurricane Ike churned through warm gulf waters and took aim at southeast Texas.
Facing a hurricane that Gov. Rick Perry said could have "extraordinary impact," authorities ordered the evacuation of residents of low-lying coastal areas south and east of Houston. Chemical companies and refineries shut down their plants, bracing for high winds and damaging floods.
"I can't overemphasize the danger that is facing us," Perry said in Austin. Ike is "going to do some substantial damage. It's going to knock out power, and it's going to cause massive flooding."
Nearly 1 million people along the Texas coast were ordered to flee inland ahead of the storm. But in a calculated risk aimed at avoiding total gridlock, authorities told most people in Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city, to just hunker down.
Ike was a Category 2 storm late yesterday, with maximum sustained winds of 100 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Forecasters predicted it would strengthen to Category 3, with winds of at least 111 mph - and possibly a Category 4 - before making landfall late today or early tomorrow.
Most of the evacuations were limited to sections of Harris County outside Houston, as well as nearby bayous and Galveston Bay. But the 2 million residents of the city itself and 1 million in other areas of the county were asked to remain at home.
"We are still saying: Please shelter in place, or to use the Texas expression, hunker down," said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the county's chief administrator. "For the vast majority of people who live in our area, stay where you are. The winds will blow and they'll howl and we'll get a lot of rain, but if you lose power and need to leave, you can do that later."
The storm was expected to curl northeast after hitting the Texas coast, pushing with reduced ferocity into east Texas and Arkansas over the weekend.
Landfall is expected near Freeport, a shrimp and chemical center 60 miles south of Houston. The streets of the town were empty yesterday, in contrast to highways closer to Houston, which were jammed with people fleeing the storm.
"I'm spending the night on my shrimp boat, watching the Weather Channel on the satellite," said Rick Beale, 51, a shrimp fisherman and one of the few people left in Freeport. Standing near a line of anchored shrimp boats, Beale said he would decide today whether to "ride it out or just get out."
The biggest evacuation was from Galveston, where residents of the entire city and barrier island were ordered to leave. Traffic was sluggish but steady - a dramatic departure from the chaotic evacuation for Hurricane Rita in 2005, when huge traffic snarls left people stranded on roadsides short of gas, food and water.
Perry predicted storm surges of at least 14 feet, with some forecasters saying the surge could reach 20 feet in exposed coastal areas.
Authorities told residents outside the mandatory evacuation zones to stay off the roads and make preparations to ride out the storm at home.
Authorities hoped to avoid the panic of three years ago, when evacuations ordered in advance of Hurricane Rita sent millions scurrying in fright and caused a monumental traffic jam so big that cars ran out of gas or overheated. The evacuation proved deadlier than the storm: 110 people died during the exodus, including 23 nursing home patients whose bus burst into flames while stuck in traffic.
Many residents in Houston, a city of more than 4 million, were planning to endure the storm at home. The nation's biggest refinery and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Johnson Space Center are in parts of the city that could be vulnerable to high winds and floods.
On radio and TV stations, weather forecasters used the term "dirty side" to refer to the eastern edge of the swirling storm. That side tends to have the strongest winds and most punishing storm surge, while also triggering tornadoes, forecasters said.
The storm is at least 300 miles wide, so much of Texas' southeastern coast could be affected. Especially vulnerable are exposed shoreline areas such as Freeport and Galveston, which was leveled by a 1900 hurricane that killed more than 6,000 people and is considered the nation's worst natural disaster.
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.
Ike is huge, taking up nearly 40 percent of the gulf. The National Hurricane Center said tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 mph extended across more than 550 miles, and hurricane-force winds of at least 74 mph stretched for 230 miles. A typical storm has tropical storm-force winds stretching 300 miles.