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Hurricane Ike taking aim at Galveston, Houston

September 12, 2008

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) -- A massive Hurricane Ike sent white waves crashing over a seawall and tossed a disabled 584-foot freighter in rough water as it steamed toward Texas Friday, threatening to devastate coastal towns and batter America's fourth-largest city.

Ike's eye was forecast to strike somewhere near Galveston late Friday or early Saturday then head inland for Houston, but the sprawling weather system nearly as big as Texas was already buffeting the Gulf Coast and causing flooding in areas still recovering from Labor Day's Hurricane Gustav.

Because of its ominous size, storm surge and flooding were the greatest threats. In unusually strong language, forecasters even warned of "certain death" for stalwarts who insisted on staying in Galveston; most had complied, along with hundreds of thousands of fellow Texans in counties up and down the coastline. But in a move designed to avoid highway gridlock as the storm closed in, most of Houston's 2 million residents hunkered down and were ordered not to leave.

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White waves as tall as 15 feet were already crashing over Galveston's seawall. It was enough to scare away Tony Munoz and his wife, Jennifer, who went down to the water to take pictures, then decided that riding out the storm wasn't a good idea after all.

"We started seeing water come up on the streets, then we saw this. We just loaded up everything, got the pets, we're leaving," Tony Munoz, 33, said. "I've been through storms before but this is different."

Ike's 105-mph winds and potential 50-foot waves initially stopped the Coast Guard from attempting a risky helicopter rescue of 22 people aboard a 584-foot freighter that broke down in the path of the storm about 90 miles southeast of Galveston, Chief Petty Officer Mike O'Berry said. The ship was hauling petroleum coke used to fuel furnaces at steel plants.

But midday Friday, the Coast Guard changed its mind and decided to stage a rescue. Petty Officer Tom Atkeson said rescue swimmers and Coast Guard and Air Force aircraft were on their way to reach the ship.

Daniel Brown, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center, said Ike was about 600 miles across, roughly the distance between Houston and Panama City, Fla. "It takes up almost the northern Gulf," he said.

The National Hurricane Center said tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 mph extended across 550 miles, and hurricane-force winds of at least 74 mph stretched for 240 miles. A typical storm has tropical storm-force winds stretching only 300 miles.

Yet a stubborn few defied orders to leave. Emory Sallie, 44, of Galveston, said he had braved storms in the past and didn't think Ike would be any different. He didn't believe the dire warnings -- he was more worried about the wind, not the flooding.

"If the island is going to disappear it has to be a tsunami," he said, as he walked along the block where his home is located, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. "If it ain't your time you ain't going anywhere."

In Surfside Beach, a small coastal town of about 805, water was already knee-deep in the streets and skies were growing increasingly dark. Police were going around in a dump truck trying to get holdouts to evacuate while there was still time. The police chief asked one stubborn couple to write their names and Social Security numbers on their forearms in black magic marker "in case something bad were to happen." They soon changed their minds, and police were wading an aluminum boat through floodwaters to rescue them.

About 60 miles inland in Houston, officials said residents should not flock to the roadways en masse, creating the same kind of gridlock that cost lives -- and a little political capital -- when Hurricane Rita threatened Houston in 2005. Some evacuation orders were in effect for low-lying sections of the Houston area, but for the most part, people stayed. Large hospitals in the city moved some patients away from windows, but they did not send them away.

Three days before landfall, Rita bloomed into a Category 5 and tracked toward the city. City and Harris County officials told Houstonians to hit the road, even while the population of Galveston Island was still clogging the freeways. The evacuation itself wound up far more dangerous than the storm: 110 people died during the effort, while the eventual Category 4 storm killed nine. Houston ultimately was spared a direct hit as the storm took a last-minute turn to the northeast and landed on the Texas-Louisiana border.

Houstonians streamed in and out of a grocery store near downtown Friday morning, carts filled with last-minute supplies such as water and Wheat Thins. Ken Wilson, 51, cut short a vacation to California to return home and ready for Ike. He loaded eight gallons of water into his car trunk before heading home to ride out the storm with his wife.

Wilson said it was too late for him to board up his house, though he had stocked up on ice and batteries.

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