HOUSTON Hurricane Ike slammed the Texas and Louisiana coast on Saturday with ferocious winds and a wall of water that flooded hundreds of miles, cut power to millions and caused billions of dollars in damage.
But relieved officials and residents said Ike may not have caused the catastrophe they had feared in the densely populated region.
The storm, which idled about a quarter of U.S. crude oil production and fuel refining capacity, swamped the island city of Galveston and paralyzed Houston, the country's fourth-largest city, shattering skyscraper windows and showering streets with debris.
There were unconfirmed reports of "a few deaths" from Ike, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said. He cited "significant surges" -- high seas pushed ashore by hurricanes -- and damage in Texas and Louisiana.
But Galveston and the Houston Ship Channel were not hit as hard as expected. Emergency officials had predicted a 20-foot (six-meter) storm surge that could have caused far greater damage and swamped refineries.
"Fortunately the worst case scenario that was spoken about, that was projected in some areas, did not occur," Texas Gov. Rick Perry told a briefing in Austin, Texas. But he said there had been "very heavy damage" to the power grid. About 4.5 million people could face weeks of power outages.
Ike came ashore at Galveston as a strong Category 2 storm at 2:10 a.m. CDT with heavy rains and sustained 110 mph (175 kph) winds, the National Hurricane Center said.
It had weakened to a tropical storm by mid-afternoon as it barreled northward on a path expected to bring heavy rains across a swath of the country stretching to Canada.
The storm flooded Galveston, sending waves over a 17-foot (5-metre) sea wall built to protect the city after a 1900 hurricane killed at least 8,000 people.
More than half the city's 60,000 residents fled before the storm. There were no reports yet of any deaths among those who stayed behind.
It was not clear yet how bad the damage was in Galveston, which is popular for beachgoers with second homes. The first aerial pictures showed homes surrounded by sea water.
In Bridge City, a small community along the upper Texas coast, frantic calls for rescue overwhelmed emergency workers.
"We just received one call from a guy in his attic and the water is rising and he can't get out," said Orange County spokeswoman Jill Frillou. "There were a lot of people that did not leave and just did not expect water to come that high."
Chertoff refused to say whether he expected the death toll to rise. "If someone stayed in an area predicted to be largely flooded, they put their lives at risk," he said.
UP TO $18 BLN INSURED LOSSES
Ike triggered the biggest disruption to U.S. energy supplies in at least three years and sent gasoline prices higher at the pumps.
Oil refineries along the western shore of Galveston Bay and Port Arthur may have been spared the worst of the flooding, Brad Penisson, a spokesman for the joint operations of southeast Texas emergency management agencies said.
Twenty-three percent of U.S. fuel production capacity was down, with 14 refineries having been shut as Ike approached. Twenty-eight natural gas processing plants were also shut.
Ike could lead to $8 billion to $18 billion in insurance claims, according to an early insurance industry computer-modeled estimate of damage.
Ike was the biggest storm to hit a U.S. city since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.
Houston is home to 2.2 million people and a metropolitan area of 5.6 million residents. Unlike much of the United States, the city has a booming economy thanks in part to demand for energy.
CAUTION ABOUT EARLY CONFIDENCE
Authorities were cautious about early confidence in limited damage, especially after the Katrina experience, when levees broke under the floodwaters long after the storm.
President George W. Bush, who was strongly criticized for the slow federal response to Katrina, declared a major disaster in his native Texas and in Louisiana, and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local efforts in the storm area.
Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc said 17 buildings had collapsed on Galveston Island and that downtown was flooded and the causeway linking the island to the mainland had buckled. There were no reports of deaths, he said.
"People couldn't get in even if we let them," LeBlanc said.
Ike also flooded coastal communities and forced rescuers out to save stranded residents in parts of Louisiana, the state battered by Katrina three years ago and by Hurricane Gustav less than two weeks ago.
An estimated 10,000 homes in Terrebonne Parish were flooded or expected to be flooded as the waters rose, officials there said. About 100 elderly residents were evacuated overnight when flooding overwhelmed a nursing home in Franklin, Louisiana.
(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in League City; Eileen O'Grady, Erwin Seba and Bruce Nichols in Houston and Jim Forsyth in San Antonio; Richard Cowan and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Carey Gillam in Kansas City, Jessica Rinaldi in Galveston, and Lilla Zuill and Richard Valdmanis in New York; Writing by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Mary Milliken and Frances Kerry)