FREEPORT, TEXAS — Thousands of residents of Texas' vulnerable Gulf Coast clogged highways headed inland Thursday, heeding mandatory evacuation orders as Hurricane Ike churned through warm waters and took aim at southeastern Texas.
Facing a hurricane that Gov. Rick Perry said could have "extraordinary impact," authorities ordered the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of residents of low-lying coastal areas south and east of Houston. Chemical plants and refineries closed, bracing for high winds and damaging floods.
"I can't overemphasize the danger that is facing us," Perry told reporters 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."
Ike was a Category 2 storm late Thursday, with maximum sustained winds of 100 mph, the National Hurricane Center said. Forecasters predicted the storm would strengthen to a Category 3, with winds of at least 111 mph -- and possibly a Category 4 -- before making landfall early Saturday.
The storm was expected to curl north and east after slamming the Texas coast, pushing with reduced ferocity into eastern Texas and central 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 Thursday, in contrast with 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 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 for Galveston, where the entire population of the city and barrier island were ordered out.
"All neighborhoods and possibly entire coastal communities will be inundated during the period of peak storm tide," the hurricane center said of Galveston on Thursday evening. "Persons not heeding evacuation orders in single-family one- or two-story homes will face certain death."
Traffic was sluggish but steady -- a dramatic departure from the chaotic evacuation for Hurricane Rita in 2005, when massive traffic jams left people stranded on roadsides, short of gas, food and water.
Perry predicted a storm surge of at least 14 feet, with some forecasters saying it 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.
"Please shelter in place, or to use the Texas expression, hunker down," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the county's chief administrator, said at a news conference in Houston. "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."
Hurricane warnings were issued for a 400-mile stretch of coastline from south of Corpus Christi to Morgan City, La.
In addition to mandatory evacuations in nine ZIP Code areas around Houston, evacuation orders were issued for all of Jefferson and Orange counties, home to 320,000 people between Houston and the Louisiana state line, and part of San Patricio County near Corpus Christi.
Many residents in Houston were planning to endure the storm at home. The nation's biggest refinery and NASA's Johnson Space Center are located in parts of the city that could be vulnerable to high winds and surging floodwaters.
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 surge, while also triggering tornadoes, they said.
The storm is at least 300 miles wide, meaning that much of Texas' southeastern coast could be pummeled. 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.
The port of Houston, one of the nation's busiest, planned to shut down cargo operations until at least Monday. Operators were told to prepare to move their vessels from port.
The storm threatened offshore oil platforms, land-based refineries and massive chemical complexes along the Texas coast. Dow Chemical planned to shut down its huge operations in Freeport, where the company's plants produce 27 billion pounds of chemicals and chemical products each year.
The looming storm triggered a wave of closings and cancellations. The Houston Astros said their baseball games Friday and Saturday in Houston would be rescheduled. George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston said all flights would cease after 2 p.m. today.
The airport was jammed Thursday. Angela Redman, 28, begged an American Airlines employee for a seat on a plane.
"Please just tell me when I can get on a plane -- any plane," Redman said. Accompanied by two toddlers, she was trying to meet up with her husband in Dallas.
The employee smiled sympathetically and handed her a voucher for a free meal but no airline ticket.
In Freeport, shrimp fisherman Beale was the only soul on the town's main street, walking in the hot sun to see whether Tammy's Tavern, a local watering hole, was open.
But the bar was closed. The bartender, Paula Gonzales, 55, was on the front porch of her yellow frame house a few blocks from the ocean. She and her husband, Juan, 60, were debating when to join the rest of the town's 12,500 people in obeying the evacuation order.
Paula Gonzales said the couple had no intention of confronting the storm here. "Oh, no -- no way we're staying," she said.
"I'm afraid of the surge -- afraid of all that water."