HOUSTON - As a gigantic Hurricane Ike steamed through the Gulf of Mexico toward the Texas coast, officials in America's fourth-largest city made a bold decision: Instead of fleeing, most residents here would stare down the storm.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard before dawn Friday received a radio call for help about a 584-foot bulk freighter stranded 90 miles southeast of Galveston.
Petty Office Patrick Kelley told The Associated Press the ship, hauling petroleum coke, broke down in the path of the hurricane "in a potentially dangerous situation."
"They're so far offshore, you're looking at only helicopter responses. Then you're dealing with winds," Kelley said, saying the Coast Guard was weighing its response options.
No details were immediately provided by the Coast Guard on the name of the ship or where it was headed. The vessel was carrying 22 people.
In the Houston area, homeowners were told to board up windows, clear the decks of furniture and stock up on drinking water and non-perishable food. Residents of Galveston, warned by the National Weather Service they could "face certain death," were ordered to evacuate as were those in low-lying sections of the Houston area.
But officials warned inland residents that they should not flock to the roadways en masse, creating the same kind of gridlock that cost lives — and a little political capital — when Hurricane Rita threatened Houston in 2005.
"It will be, in candor, something that people will be scared of," Houston Mayor Bill White warned. "A number of people in this community have not experienced the magnitude of these winds."
The decision is a stark contrast to how emergency management officials responded to Hurricane Rita in 2005. As the storm closed in three years ago, the region implemented its plan: Evacuate the 2 million people in the coastal communities first, past the metropolis of Houston; once they were out of harm's way, Houston would follow in an orderly fashion.
But three days before landfall, Rita bloomed into a Category 5 and tracked toward the city. City and Harris County officials told Houstonians to hit the road, even while the population of Galveston Island was still clogging the freeways. It was a decision that proved tragic: 110 people died during the effort, making the evacuation more deadly than the eventual Category 4 storm, which killed nine.
With the lessons of that disaster, public officials were left with a vexing choice this time. Because Ike's path wasn't clear until just about 48 hours before the storm, officials didn't have a lot of time to make evacuation calls.
"Almost all of them are in a pretty tough spot," said Michael Lindell, a Texas A&M University urban planner and emergency management expert. "The problem is elected officials were not elected to be hurricane experts.
"It's staring into the barrel of a gun. It's a very challenging problem for them and there isn't any easy answer."
Ike was forecast to make landfall early Saturday southwest of Galveston, a barrier island and beach town about 50 miles southeast of downtown Houston and scene of the nation's deadliest hurricane, the great storm of 1900 that left at least 6,000 dead.
Though Houston didn't evacuate, low-lying communities predicted to be the bullseye of the storm did. People on the island were ordered evacuated Thursday, joining residents of at least nine zip codes in flood-prone areas of Harris County, in which Houston is located, along with hundreds of thousands of fellow Texans in counties up and down the coastline.
"I don't have a crystal ball, but if I did, I think it would tell me a sad story," said Randy Smith, the police chief and a waterfront property owner on Surfside Beach, just down the coast from Galveston and a possible landfall target.
"And that story would be that we're faced with devastation of a catastrophic range. I think we're going to see a storm like most of us haven't seen."
Most metropolitan residents appeared to be heeding orders and staying put. Edgar Ortiz, a 55-year-old maintenance worker from east Houston, said leaders were providing wise advice, considering what happened during Rita, but said people were inclined to make up their own minds.
"I guess people tend to want to stay where they're at," he said as he shopped for bottled water, toilet paper and canned goods. "A lot of people don't want to leave. I don't want to leave. You may be taking a risk, but that's just how it is."
Maria Belmonte, 42, of Channelview, said she was stuck in traffic for 18 hours as she evacuated for Rita. This time, she was comfortable with the recommendation to stay put — but she said she would reconsider if the forecast worsened Friday.
"We have small kids, and we need to think about their safety," said Belmonte, a records clerk at an elementary school.
Ike would be the first major hurricane to hit a U.S. metropolitan area since Katrina devastated New Orleans three years ago. For Houston, it would be the first major hurricane since Alicia in August 1983 came ashore on Galveston Island, killing 21 people and causing $2 billion in damage.
Ike is so big, it could inflict a punishing blow even in those areas that do not get a direct hit. Forecasters warned because of Ike's size and the shallow Texas coastal waters, it could produce a surge, or wall of water, 20 feet high, and waves of perhaps 50 feet. It could also dump 10 inches or more of rain.
At 8 a.m. EDT Friday, the storm was centered about 230 miles southeast of Galveston, moving to the west-northwest near 13 mph. Ike was a Category 2 storm with maximum sustained winds near 105 mph.
Hurricane warnings were in effect over a 400-mile stretch of coastline from south of Corpus Christi to Morgan City, La., and many residents who fled Hurricane Gustav two weeks ago only to be spared in East Texas were packing up again Thursday.
Tropical storm warnings extended south almost to the Mexican border and east to the Mississippi-Alabama line, including New Orleans.
The oil and gas industry was closely watching the storm because it was headed straight for the nation's biggest complex of refineries and petrochemical plants. The upper Texas coast accounts for one-fifth of U.S. refining capacity.
The first rain and wind was set to arrive later Friday. Residents were scurrying to get ready, and hardware stores put limits on the number of gas containers that could be sold. Batteries, drinking water and other storm supplies were running low, and grocery stores were getting set to close. Houston was slowly shutting down, and people beginning to head inside. The only thing to do was wait and see what Ike had in store.
"It's a big storm," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said. "I cannot overemphasize the danger that is facing us. It's going to do some substantial damage. It's going to knock out power. It's going to cause massive flooding."
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