GALVESTON, Texas — With Hurricane Ike scheduled to make landfall early Saturday, residents all along the Texas Gulf Coast braced for a monstrous tidal surge that officials warned could flood as many as 100,000 homes.
Although Ike was only a Category 2 storm as it crept close to a likely landfall near Galveston at about 1 a.m., with winds of 105 mph, it was expected to bring tides as high as 20 feet above normal, prompting warnings in coastal cities as far away as Mississippi.
Texas officials warned at a news conference that several critical oil refining centers would be underwater if a surge of 15 to 25 feet struck the Galveston Bay area and that damages could reach $100 billion. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, warned that the storm could be the worst to hit Texas in 50 years.
"This is a very large tropical cyclone," said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "It's affecting the weather over the whole Gulf of Mexico in one form or another."
At 5 p.m. Eastern time, Ike center was about 135 miles southeast of Galveston, moving to the west-northwest at 12 mph. Forecasters said it could become a Category 3 storm with winds of at least 111 mph before the eye strikes land.
A hurricane warning was in effect from Morgan City, La., to north of Port Aransas, Texas. A tropical storm warning was in effect for Port Aransas to Port Mansfield, Texas and east of Morgan City to the Mississippi-Alabama border. The warning included New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain.
Tropical storm-force winds extended across 550 miles and hurricane-force winds reached 240 miles from the center of the storm.
U.S. Coast Guard and Air Force rescue crews were forced to abort the rescue of a 584-foot freighter in the Gulf waters off Galveston on Friday. High seas and poor visibility kept them from the disabled vessel, the Antalina, and its 22 crew members.
"Unfortunately there were 80-knot (92 mph) winds on scene, well beyond the operating conditions for the air crews to safely rescue the crew of the Antalina." said Rear Adm. Joel R. Whitehead, a Coast Guard commander, in a statement. He said the rescue crews were maintaining contact with the drifting freighter.
In Galveston, officials prepared for the worst. Despite an evacuation order and dire warnings that anyone who remained behind faced "certain death" from the storm's surge, Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc estimated that 40 percent of the city's population remained on the island.
"Certainly in my lifetime, this is the worst I've seen," LeBlanc said. "The worst is yet to come."
LeBlanc said rescue crews had already pulled 12 people from high waters on the north side of the island. The island's highly vulnerable west end was taking a beating from high waves, which were regularly crashing over the city's seawall, built after a storm in 1900 that killed thousands.
LeBlanc said the city would pull its personnel off the streets at 9 p.m. A shelter of last resort had been opened at Ball High School, and 150 people were there by mid afternoon.
Ike already has made a name for itself as a killer storm. Since coming to life in the eastern Atlantic on Labor Day, nearly two weeks ago, it's brought havoc to every land mass it's touched.
In Haiti, hundreds — including elderly women, children and babies — drowned in raging flood waters and thousands of others were left homeless. Ike's fierce winds destroyed homes and government buildings in Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas. The storm also proved catastrophic in Cuba during its two-day march through the island, where five people died and billions of dollars of crops and structures were damaged.
The storm's approach to Texas set off a flurry of preparations.
Oil companies had shut down 97.5 percent of production in the Gulf of Mexico by Friday morning and were battening down refineries and petrochemical plants in an area that accounts for one-fifth of U.S. refining capacity.
ExxonMobil reported that it had evacuated workers from its Gulf Coast offshore platforms and onshore facilities in the anticipated path of the Hurricane Ike, shutting down the daily production about 36,000 barrels of oil and 270 million cubic feet of gas.
Wholesale gasoline prices jumped to around $4.85 a gallon for fear of vast shortages. That was up substantially from about $3.25 on Wednesday and less than $3 on Tuesday.
The Houston Police Department covered the windows of its downtown headquarters with plywood, and officials canceled all flights from the city's Bush Intercontinental Airport after 2 p.m.
But most residents of Houston — 60 miles north of Galveston — did not flee — encouraged to hunker down by officials who feared traffic gridlock if the nation's fourth-largest city attempted to evacuate.
Ruben Reyes and Craig Sury were among those who stayed, spending the hours before the storm's arrival boarding up the homes of neighbors and relatives. They saved theirs for last.
"We were kind of hoping the storm would turn and we wouldn't have to do our own," Reyes said, recalling the last time they shuttered their home during Hurricane Rita in 2005.
Others said they wouldn't leave even if ordered to. Marianna Trojan said she'd made the mistake of evacuating during Rita. She said she sat in her car for 10 hours, trying to get to San Antonio.
"I never want to go through that again," she said.
About 1,000 coastal residents arrived Friday at Texas state parks outside Ike's path with their RVs and campers. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department waived entry fees and offered discounted rates for cabins.
About 200 of the TPWD game wardens across the state are on standby in the Houston and South Texas area to be ready to help with high-water rescues, said TPWD spokesman Tom Harvey.
President Bush promised that the federal government was prepared to help.
"The federal government will not only help with the pre-storm strategy, but once this storm passes we'll be working with state and local authorities to help people recover as quickly as possible,'' he said from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma.
But all eyes were on Galveston, the scene of one of the worst natural disasters in American history when an unnamed — and largely unheralded — storm stole in upon the city in the middle of the night Sept. 8, 1900, and left from 6,000 to 12,000 dead.
On Friday afternoon, waves — some as tall as a two-story building — crashed into the coast, covering the streets with debris and floodwater.
A local television station reported that a popular tourist attraction in the area, Moody Gardens, was already underwater.
Galveston city officials announced an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew and said it would remain in effect through Thursday.
LeBlanc said Ike is reminiscent of Hurricane Carla, a Category 4 hurricane, which slammed into the Texas coast in 1961, killing more than 40 people.
(Hanna, of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, reported from Galveston; Mooney and Bustos, of the Miami Herald, reported from Miami. Eva-Marie Ayala and Bill Miller, of the Fort-Worth Star Telegram, contributed to this article from Houston.)
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