WHARTON, TEXAS — With Hurricane Ike gathering strength over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, authorities ordered mandatory or voluntary evacuations in four low-lying counties along the Texas coast as frail and elderly residents were bused to safety inland.
Ike barreled across the gulf past Cuba, strengthening into a Category 2 hurricane with maximum winds near 100 mph. Forecasters predicted the storm would become a Category 3 -- possibly a Category 4 -- before making landfall somewhere between Corpus Christi and Houston early Saturday.
A Category 4 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale packs sustained winds of at least 131 mph and storm surges 13 feet to 18 feet above normal.
The state's coastal areas are home to the nation's largest collection of refineries and chemical plants. Texas has a quarter of the nation's refining capacity, with most of the facilities located in the hurricane's potential path as outlined by forecasters.
As highways began to swell with traffic heading inland Wednesday and people jammed stores to stock up on supplies, state officials prepared 1,350 buses to ferry people out of harm's way. More than 1 million people live along the coast between Corpus Christi and Houston, which is just inland from Galveston Bay and has a population of about 4 million.
To accommodate those fleeing the storm, state troopers opened the shoulder of the northbound lanes of Interstate 37 between Corpus Christi and San Antonio.
Along interstates in Houston and its suburbs, overhead electronic signs read: "HURRICANE FORMING IN GULF -- FILL YOUR GAS TANKS."
Oil companies removed workers from more than 400 production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, although most such facilities were made stronger after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "It is imperative that residents pay attention to this storm, heed warnings from their local leaders and take the steps necessary to protect their families, homes and businesses," Gov. Rick Perry said.
Michael Peterson, who lives outside Houston, was at a Lowe's store southwest of the city, loading his shopping cart with gasoline cans, bottled water, batteries and a battery-operated lantern.
"Just playing it safe," Peterson said at the checkout counter. "I don't know if I'm staying or leaving, but at least I know I'll be prepared."
The store was handing out hurricane preparedness guides, complete with a paper map of the Gulf of Mexico and Texas for customers to chart Ike's course. Stacked at the entrance were gas cans, bottled water, batteries, duct tape and plastic sheeting.
The governor has issued a disaster declaration for 88 counties in southeastern Texas ahead of the storm. Parts of three coastal counties were under a mandatory evacuation order, as were several state parks and the low-lying west end of Galveston Island, southeast of Houston.
No evacuation has been ordered for Harris County, which includes Houston. But authorities were concerned that, depending on where Ike strikes, storm surges could flood parts of Houston with waters from its bayous and Galveston Bay. There were similar concerns down the coast in Matagorda Bay.
Ike already has battered Haiti and Cuba, toppling buildings in Havana and forcing an estimated 2.5 million people to flee. The storm is targeting Texas less than two months after Hurricane Dolly, a Category 2 storm, caused $1.2 billion in damage along the far southern Texas coast after making landfall near the Mexican border.