GALVESTON, Texas – Howling ashore with 110 mph winds, 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 though, it was unclear how many may had 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 and many roads impassable, 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.
The storm, nearly as big as Texas itself, 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, La.
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."
South of Galveston, Surfside Beach Mayor Larry Davison said about 16 houses were destroyed.
"It's not as bad as I thought it was going to be, but it's pretty bad," Davison said. "It'll take six months to clean it up."
Ray Wilkinson, 67, didn't want to leave Friday until it was too late. When authorities realized he was there, they decided not to endanger their personnel to get him out of town.
When authorities got to him Saturday morning, Wilkinson was drunk.
"He kinda drank his way through the night," Davison said. Wilkinson was waving when officials got to the house.
Farther up the coast, much of Bridge City and downtown Orange were under up to 8 feet of water and rescue teams in dump trucks were plowing through in an effort to reach families trapped on roofs and inside attics.
"We've got to try and do something," said Orange County Judge Carl Thibodeaux.
In Louisiana, Ike's storm surge inundated thousands of homes and businesses. In Plaquemines Parish, near New Orleans, a sheriff's spokesman said levees were overtopped and floodwaters were higher than either hurricane Katrina or Rita.
"The storm surge we're experiencing, on both sides of the Mississippi River, is higher than anything we've seen before," Marie said.
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."
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. Fears of shortages pushed wholesale gasoline prices to around $4.85 a gallon, up from $3 earlier in the week.
At least eight refineries were shut down ahead of the storm but it was too soon to know how they fared.
Ike passed over Houston before dawn, blowing out windows in the state's tallest building, the 75-story 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.
Mindful of the deadly chaos that ensured in 2005 when the nation's fourth-largest city emptied out ahead of Hurricane Rita, Houston officials evacuated only the lowest-lying areas 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 with winds of around 80 mph. At 11 a.m. EDT, the center was about 20 miles north-northeast of Huntsville, Texas, and moving north at 16 mph. It was expected to turn toward Arkansas later in the day. At 2 p.m. EDT Ike become a tropical storm with winds near 60 mph.
Because Ike was so huge, hurricane winds pounded the coast for hours before landfall and continued through the morning, with the worst winds and rain after the center came ashore, forecasters said.
"For us, it was a 10," Galveston Fire Chief Mike Varela said. 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 fisherman 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 a 911 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 some 140,000 more in Louisiana. That's in addition to the 60,000 still without power from Labor Day's Hurricane Gustav. Suppliers warned it could be weeks before all service was restored.
But there was 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.
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.
Houston Mayor Bill White said the police department, Coast Guard, federal emergency rescue workers and thousands of Centerpoint Energy employees were set to begin recovery efforts as soon as the rain and wind eased enough to allow safe travel on city streets.