GALVESTON, TEXAS — Punishing winds and waves from massive Hurricane Ike smashed into this low-lying barrier island Friday, flooding roads and providing a preview of what authorities predicted would be catastrophic damage to Galveston -- and possibly Houston and other inland areas.
The storm, as big as Texas and packing winds of at least 110 mph, was expected to slam into the coast near Galveston early this morning. Before midnight Central time, hurricane-force wind gusts buffeted the island.
Forecasters predicted that the storm's "dirty side," with the heaviest storm surge and highest winds, would batter Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city.
There were fears that Ike would knock out power for up to 5.2 million customers and cause extensive damage across southeast Texas before heading into central Arkansas. Even before the storm came ashore, about 850,000 customers -- or about 4.5 million people -- were without power in Houston, the Associated Press reported. And in Louisiana, Ike's storm surge breached levees, flooding more than 1,800 homes, the AP said.
Waves of roiling brown water from the Gulf of Mexico crashed against Galveston's 17-foot sea wall, clogging streets with debris. Fast-rising Galveston Bay flooded access roads along Interstate 45, which connects Galveston to the mainland. Water lapped against the front steps of some homes and left streets impassable
"This is probably the biggest storm to hit the Texas coast in my lifetime, and I'm not a young bird," Texas Gov. Rick Perry, 58, told KTRH radio. Perry predicted that Galveston and towns like Sabine Lake and Port Arthur would be left underwater.
The National Hurricane Center said Ike could strengthen into a Category 3 hurricane, with winds of 111 mph or higher, before making landfall. The center predicted a storm surge of 20 feet -- 25 feet in some areas -- and 5 to 10 inches of rain, if not more, in most areas.
About 600 miles across, Ike is one of the largest hurricanes in recent memory, taking up almost the entire northern half of the Gulf of Mexico.
By late afternoon, the hurricane center reported that water levels had risen 5 inches along the gulf's northwestern coast. AccuWeather described "a massive wall of water being pushed through the gulf" toward the Texas coast.
Levees breached in southeastern Louisiana near Houma, the AP reported. More than 160 people had to be rescued, and Gov. Bobby Jindal said he expected those numbers to grow.
The U.S. Coast Guard was besieged by at least 200 panicked calls Friday from residents all along the coastline seeking help. Ninety-four people, and four pets, were rescued by helicopters before the aircraft were grounded at 4:30 p.m. because of high winds. Residents climbed onto their rooftops to flag down rescuers, said Chief Warrant Officer Lionel Bryant in Katy, Texas.
"One person down on the coast said they were stranded with 24 other people," Bryant said. "Our helicopters can only carry six people, along with the crew, if we really shove them in there."
Bryant said the Coast Guard decided it was too dangerous to rescue 22 freighter crew members in the gulf. Their 580-foot ship was stalled nearly 90 miles from Galveston, directly in Ike's path.
Late Friday, the Coast Guard reported that the crew had safely weathered the brunt of the storm. A tugboat was expected to reach the ship at noon today. Houston, a city of 4 million, was boarded up and locked down late Friday. Parts of the city and surrounding areas were under curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. Most businesses were closed, and the streets were nearly empty except for police cars and emergency vehicles.
Police asked motorists to get off the city's freeways by 6:30 p.m., when hurricane-force winds were expected to begin reaching the outskirts of Houston.
"I just saw someone kayaking down Buffalo Bayou," a main waterway that cuts through Houston, said Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas. "It's time to get inside."
Authorities feared widespread flooding in the city. Ike could force water up the seven bayous that wind through Houston, inundating neighborhoods prone to flooding even during ordinary rainstorms.
Brennan's of Houston, a historic restaurant, was destroyed by fire early this morning, the AP reported. Firefighters couldn't save it because of the high winds.
What began as a sunny late-summer day turned to turbulent evening as winds picked up and rain began.
Residents who live outside mandatory evacuation areas were asked by authorities to ride out the storm to avoid the kind of highway gridlock that cost lives when Hurricane Rita threatened the city in 2005.
Several hundred thousand residents in low-lying areas south and east of Houston were ordered to leave. Most drove out Thursday and Friday, according to emergency officials, who said up to 90,000 may have stayed to face the storm.
In Galveston, City Manager Steve LeBlanc estimated that up to 40% of the island's 57,000 residents had ignored the mandatory evacuation.