GALVESTON, Texas - Massive Hurricane Ike ravaged southeast Texas early Saturday, battering the coast with driving rain and ferocious wind gusts as residents who decided too late they should have heeded orders to evacuate made futile calls for rescue.
It remained unclear before daybreak how many people may have perished as the worst of Ike was passing over the Houston-Galveston area. But even before the storm had passed and daylight had arrived, damage was already considered extensive. Thousands of homes and government buildings had flooded, roads were washed out, 2.9 million people lost power and several fires burned unabated as crews could not reach them. But the biggest fear was that tens of thousands of people had defied orders to flee and would need to be rescued from submerged homes and neighborhoods.
"The unfortunate truth is we're going to have to go in ... and put our people in the tough situation to save people who did not choose wisely. We'll probably do the largest search and rescue operation that's ever been conducted in the state of Texas," said Andrew Barlow, spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry.
Several fires were burning untended across Houston and 911 operators received about 1,250 calls in 24 hours, said Frank Michel, spokesman for Houston Mayor Bill White.
Streets around the city's theater district became rushing streams and shards of glass fell from the sparkling skyscrapers that define the skyline of America's fourth-largest city. Winds were estimated to be 20-30 mph faster at the top of the steel and glass towers than at ground level.
The stubborn storm remained a Category 2 hurricane with winds topping 100 mph, but started moving away from Houston on Saturday morning. It was about 15 miles east-northeast of Houston Intercontinental Airport at 7 a.m. EDT and was expected to turn toward Arkansas later in the day.
The eye of the storm powered ashore at 3:10 a.m. EDT at Galveston with 110 mph winds, just shy of a Category 3 storm. Because Ike was so huge — nearly as big as Texas itself — hurricane winds pounded the coast for hours before landfall and would continue through much of the morning, with the worst winds and rain after the center came ashore, forecasters said.
"For us, it was a 10," Galveston Fire Chief Mike Varela said when asked to compare Ike to earlier hurricanes like 2005's Rita. Varela said firefighters responded to about 60 rescue calls before suspending operations around 8 p.m. Friday.
More than 1.3 million customers — or 2.9 million people — had lost power, and suppliers warned it could be weeks before all the service was restored. The only parts of Houston with power were downtown and the massive medical center section.
Though 1 million people fled coastal communities near where the storm made landfall, authorities in four counties alone said roughly 140,000 ignored mandatory evacuation orders. Other counties were unable to provide numbers but officials were concerned many had stayed behind.
"We don't know what we are going to find," Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said. "We hope we will find the people who are left here alive and well."
As the front of the storm moved into Galveston, fire crews rescued nearly 300 people who changed their minds and fled at the last minute. Six feet of water had collected in the Galveston County Courthouse in the island's downtown, and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston was flooded, according to local storm reports on the National Weather Service's Web site.
Even before Ike made landfall, Coast Guard helicopters had rescued 103 people in the Bolivar Peninsula near Galveston Island, some from roofs and others from cars, said Petty Officer 3rd Class Ayla Stevens.
Some 30 miles inland, storm surge pushing up through Galveston Bay was sending water into a neighborhood near Johnson Space Center where White, the Houston mayor, had made rounds earlier with a bullhorn trying to compel people to leave. Nearby, the popular Kemah Boardwalk at the mouth of Galveston Bay, ringed by million-dollar homes, was submerged, state officials said.
Thousands of homes could be damaged, a spokesman for the mayor said, but it was too dangerous to go out to assess the neighborhood at the height of the storm.
Across Houston's downtown, car alarms screeched and light poles swayed like small trees.
The restaurant Brennan's of Houston, a downtown institution for more than four decades, was destroyed by flames when firefighters were thwarted by high winds. Fire officials said a restaurant worker and his young daughter were taken to a hospital in critical condition with burns over 70 percent of their bodies.
On the far east side of Houston, 34-year-old Claudia Macias was awake with her newborn and trying not to think about the trees swaying outside her doors or the wind vibrating through her windows.
"I don't know who's going to sleep here tonight, maybe the baby," she said.
Before it came ashore, the storm was 600 miles across. Because of the hurricane's size, the state's shallow coastal waters and its largely unprotected coastline, forecasters said the biggest threat would be flooding and storm surge, with Ike expected to hurl a wall of water two stories high — 20 to 25 feet — at the coast.
But there was some good news: a stranded freighter with 22 men aboard made it through the brunt of the storm safely, and a tugboat was on the way to save them. And an evacuee from Calhoun County gave birth to a baby girl in the restroom of a shelter with the aid of an expert in geriatric psychiatry who delivered his first baby in two decades.
"It's kind of like riding a bike," Dr. Mark Burns told the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung after he helped Ku Paw welcome her fourth child.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said more than 5.5 million prepackaged meals were being sent to the region, along with more than 230 generators and 5.6 million liters of water. At least 3,500 FEMA officials were stationed in Texas and Louisiana.
If Ike is as bad as feared, the storm could travel up Galveston Bay and send a surge up the Houston Ship Channel and into the port of Houston. The port is the nation's second-busiest, and is an economically vital complex of docks, pipelines, depots and warehouses that receives automobiles, consumer products, industrial equipment and other cargo from around the world and ships out vast amounts of petrochemicals and agricultural products.
The storm also could force water up the seven bayous that thread through Houston, swamping neighborhoods so flood-prone that they get inundated during ordinary rainstorms.
The oil and gas industry was closely watching Ike because it was headed straight for the nation's biggest complex of refineries and petrochemical plants. Wholesale gasoline prices jumped to around $4.85 a gallon for fear of shortages.
Ike is 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. Houston has since then seen a population explosion, so many of the residents now in the storm's path have never experienced the full wrath of a hurricane.
On its way through the Gulf toward Texas, Ike spawned thunderstorms, shut down schools and knocked out power throughout southern Louisiana on Friday. An estimated 1,200 people were in state shelters in Monroe and Shreveport, and another 220 in medical needs shelters.
In southeastern Louisiana near Houma, Ike breached levees, and flooded more than 1,800 homes. More than 160 people had to be rescued from sites of severe flooding, and Gov. Bobby Jindal said he expected those numbers to grow. In some extreme instances, residents of low-lying communities where waters continued to rise continued to refuse National Guard assistance to flee their homes, authorities said.
No deaths were officially reported, but crews expected to resume searching at daybreak near Corpus Christi for a man believed swept out to sea as Ike closed in.
Juan A. Lozano reported from Galveston. Chris Duncan reported from Houston. Associated Press writers Jim Vertuno and Jay Root in Austin, Eileen Sullivan in Washington, Schuyler Dixon and Paul Weber in Dallas, John Porretto, Monica Rhor and Pauline Arrillaga in Houston, Michael Kunzelman in Lake Charles, La., Brian Skoloff in West Palm Beach, Fla., April Castro and Andre Coe in College Station, and Allen G. Breed and video journalist Rich Matthews in Surfside Beach also contributed.