Thousands Flee Texas Coast as Hurricane Ike Shifts Northward

September 11, 2008

On Sept. 10, it looked like Hurricane Ike was going to make landfall along the middle Texas coast, with Corpus Christi being the largest city with the most to lose from the storm, which is expected to make landfall sometime late on Sept. 12 or early in the morning on Sept. 13.

By the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 11, however, things had changed. The storm had veered north and the National Hurricane Center was predicting Ike would blow into the coast near Freeport, southwest of Galveston.

Late Thursday night Galveston Island was under a mandatory evacuation area. In a strongly worded statement, the National Weather Service warned people on Galveston Island living in low lying coastal communities not protected by the Galveston seawall that they face “certain death” if they did not evacuate. The storm surge from Ike is predicted to be 20 to 25 feet. Galveston’s protective seawall reaches 17 feet.

Local officials in four Texas counties mandated evacuations in coastal areas in advance of Hurricane Ike: Brazoria, Jefferson, Matagorda and Orange. Voluntary evacuation orders are currently in effect for Galveston, Jackson, Nueces, San Patricio and Victoria Counties, according to the office of Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Officials in Houston recommended that residents stay in place and prepare for the storm in order to avoid the massive traffic jam caused by Hurricane Rita in 2005. Still, major highways leading away from the coast are clogged with coastal residents fleeing the storm.

At a press conference Thursday, Gov. Perry stressed the danger of the storm: “My message to Texans in the projected impact area is this: finish your preparations because Ike is dangerous and he’s on his way. If your local officials tell you to evacuate, follow their instructions,” he said.

The National Hurricane Center has issued hurricane warnings along the Gulf Coast from Morgan City, La., to Baffin Bay, Texas. The NHC estimated that the center of Ike would be near the upper Texas coast by late Friday, Sept. 12. Maximum sustained winds are around 100 mph but the storm is expected to strenghten slightly before it makes landfall. Hurricane force winds extended 115 miles out from the center of the storm; tropical force winds extended to 275 miles. The NHC expected the storm to continue increasing in intensity, reaching major hurricane status before making landfall.

Coastal storm surge flooding of up to 20 feet above normal tide levels could be expected near and to the east of where the center of Ike makes landfall, the NHC said.

In his Sept. 11 press conference, Perry said the state’s Division of Emergency Management, under the leadership of Steve McCraw and Jack Colley, is executing a massive effort to assist state and local officials in moving Texans out of harms way. In addition key personnel and resources had been activated, including up to 7,500 Texas Military Forces personnel with helicopters and cargo planes, more than 1,300 buses for those who can’t self-evacuate, and more than 300 ambulances for citizens with special medical needs.

The oil and gas industry is watching the storm closely, the Associated press reported. Texas is home to 26 refineries that account for one-fourth of U.S. refining capacity, and most are clustered along the Gulf Coast in such places as Houston, Port Arthur and Corpus Christi. Exxon Mobil Corp.’s plant in Baytown, outside Houston, is the nation’s largest refinery. Dow Chemical has a huge operation just north of Corpus Christi.

Refineries are built to withstand high winds, but flooding can disrupt operations and – as happened in Louisiana after Hurricane Gustav – power outages can shut down equipment for days or weeks. An extended shutdown could lead to higher gasoline prices.

Sources: Texas Governor’s Office, National Weather Service, National Hurricane Center, Associated Press

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