GALVESTON, Texas - Howling ashore with 110 mph winds, Hurricane Ike ravaged the Texas coast Saturday, flooding thousands of homes and businesses, shattering windows in Houston's skyscrapers and knocking out power to millions of people.
At first light, it was unclear how many may have perished, and authorities mobilized for a huge search-and-rescue operation to reach the more than 100,000 people who ignored warnings that any attempt to ride the storm out could bring "certain death."
"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.
With the winds still blowing, authorities in some places could not venture outside to get a full look at the damage, but they were encouraged that the storm surge topped out at only 13.5 feet — far lower than the catastrophic 20-to-25-foot wall of water forecasters had feared.
The storm, nearly as big as Texas itself, blasted a 500-mile stretch of coastline in Louisiana and Texas. It breached levees, flooded roads and led more than 1 million people to evacuate and seek shelter inland.
"Every storm's unique, but this one certainly will be remembered for its size," said Benton McGee, supervisory hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey's storm surge center in Ruston, La.
Of greatest concern were the more than 100,000 people in coastal counties who ignored mandatory evacuation orders, including thousands of residents of Galveston, the low-lying barrier island where Ike crashed ashore at 3:10 a.m. EDT.
"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."
Officials in Houston and along the coast reported receiving thousands of distress calls overnight but they were unable to respond because of the dangerous hurricane conditions. Emergency responders were fanning out Saturday morning from the Reliant Center in Houston to take stock of the damage and rescue any holdouts who needed help
"This is a democracy," said Mark Miner, a spokesman for Perry. "Local officials who can order evacuations put out very strong messages. Gov. Perry put out a very strong warning. But you can't force people to leave their homes. They made a decision to ride out the storm. Our prayers are with them."
Ike passed directly over downtown Houston before dawn, blowing out windows in the state's tallest building, the Chase Tower. Behind splintered shards, desks were exposed to the pounding morning rains, metal blinds hung in a twisted heap from some windows, and smoky black glass covered the streets below.
Documents, marked "highly confidential," were strewn across nearly empty streets.
"It sounded like ice or something hitting the window but really it was glass," said Santa Montelongo, 53, who took refuge inside her office at a nearby building. "We could see it fly by. It got really spooky."
Fires burned untended across Galveston and Houston. Brennan's, a landmark downtown Houston restaurant, 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.
Mindful of the deadly chaos that ensured in 2005 when the nation's fourth-largest city emptied out ahead of Hurricane Rita, Houston officials evacuated only the lowest-lying areas of the city and told some 2 million others to "hunker down" and ride out the storm at home. Ike was the first hurricane since Alicia in 1983 to land a direct hit on Houston.
"From the beginning, we knew this was going to be a big storm, a frightening situation," said County Judge Ed Emmett, who urged residents to stay inside, even if they think the storm has passed. "Those of us who were around 25 years ago when Alicia came through, we know what it's like to listen to those winds and that rain. But from where we now stand, as the storm goes through and clears our area, we are going to see our community at its very best."
As Ike moved north later Saturday morning, the storm dropped to a Category 1 hurricane with winds of around 80 mph. At 11 a.m. EDT, the center was about 20 miles north-northeast of Huntsville, Texas, and moving north at 16 mph. It was expected to turn toward Arkansas later in the day and become a tropical storm.
Because Ike was so huge, hurricane winds pounded the coast for hours before landfall and continued through 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. Varela said firefighters responded to dozens of rescue calls before suspending operations Friday night, including from 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.
"I'm drained. I'm beat up," said Steven Rushing, a commercial fishmerman who tried to ride out the storm with his wife and several family members, including his pregnant 17-year-old daughter, in their one-story brick home on Galveston Island. Early Saturday, he loaded his family into a 17-foot ski boat and headed for safety. The boat ran aground and the Rushings sprinted for safety, guided by lights from police responding to a 911 call made from the boat.
"My family is traumatized. I kept them here, promising them everything would be alright, but this is the real deal and I won't stay no more."
More than 3 million customers lost power in southeast Texas, and thousands more in Louisiana. Suppliers warned it could be weeks before all service was restored. The only parts of Houston with power were downtown and the massive medical center section.
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.
Earlier forecasts said Ike would hurl a wall of water two stories high — 20 to 25 feet — at the coast. But Wilson Shaffer of the National Weather Service said Saturday that storm surge peaked at 13 1/2 feet.
"The storm itself changed a little bit. I think it tightened up more and more of the energy went into the center," Shaffer said.
He said the surge at Galveston, where Ike made landfall, was about 11 feet, half of what was predicted.
There was other 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.
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.
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.