GALVESTON, Texas (Reuters) - Massive Hurricane Ike bore down on the Texas coast on Friday, driving a wall of water into seaside communities and threatening catastrophic damage.
Waters rose rapidly as Ike moved within hours of striking low-lying areas near Houston with a possible 20-foot (6-metre) storm surge in what may be the worst storm to hit Texas in nearly 50 years
“Our nation is facing what is by any means a potentially catastrophic hurricane,” said U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, warning that Ike’s storm surge could present the gravest danger.
“This certainly falls in the category of pretty much a worst case scenario.”
The National Weather Service warned that people in coastal areas could “face the possibility of death” from the storm surge. Officials said Ike could flood as many as 100,000 homes and send a storm wave across 100 miles of U.S. coastline.
Ike surprised many with its ferocity, just 11 days after Hurricane Gustav forced 2 million people to flee the Louisiana coast, but largely spared New Orleans.
Some 600,000 people left low lying counties under mandatory evacuation orders, but some who thought they would stick it out made a last-minute exit from Galveston.
“When I woke up, my bed was floating in the house,” said David Daubuisson, a handyman who narrowly escaped from his home in Bayou Vista. “I just took what I could and got out.”
The city was hit by a hurricane in 1900 that was the deadliest weather disaster in U.S. history, with a death toll of at least 8,000. Ike’s waves were expected to top a 17-foot (5-metre) sea wall built in 1904 in the wake of that disaster.
Crude oil markets nervously watched to see if Ike would swamp low-lying coastal refineries in its path that collectively process 20 percent of U.S. fuel supplies.
Although Ike is weaker than 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, the last storm to pummel a U.S. urban area and a major disaster, its large scope gives it more water-moving power. Ike’s hurricane-force winds extend for 240 miles, compared to Katrina’s 210 miles.
Ike was a Category 2 storm with 105 mph (165 kph) winds as it moved on a course to pass directly over Houston -- the fourth-largest city in the United States.
Ike was expected to come ashore overnight, possibly as a dangerous Category 3 storm on the five-step intensity scale with winds of more than 111 mph (178 kph), the National Hurricane Center said.
At 4 p.m. CDT (2100 GMT) on Friday, Ike was about 135 miles
southeast of Galveston, the hurricane center said. It was moving west-northwest at 12 mph (19 kph).
In Galveston, water levels had already climbed more than nine feet, forecasters said.
About 13 million people in 132 counties along the Gulf coast could face hurricane and tropical storm conditions, the U.S. National Census Bureau said.
Millions of coastal residents could be left without power, authorities said. A dawn-to-dusk curfew was laid down in evacuated areas around Houston.
The Coast Guard had to rescue 65 people from rising waters on the Bolivar Peninsula, located east of Galveston.
U.S. crude oil futures rose 31 cents to settle at $101.18 a barrel after dropping below $100 for the first time since early April as concerns over U.S. economic weakness outweighed storm disruption fears.
Ports were closed and the Coast Guard said a 584-foot (178-metre) freighter with 22 people aboard was stranded without power 90 miles southeast of Galveston. Conditions were too treacherous to attempt rescue.
The storm’s wide reach means that it will pack an unusually strong punch, taking the form of a huge wave of water it is pushing ahead of it.
“This is a Category 5 hurricane,” said Jeff Masters, co-founder of meteorological Web site The Weather Underground.
“I don’t care what the Category 2 rating says,” he said. Category 5 storms are the most dangerous.
Ike’s storm surge could push as far inland as NASA’s Johnson Space Center south of Houston, Masters said.
Houston airports were closed and city hotels were jammed with evacuees.
Ike could be the third-most damaging storm in U.S. history behind Katrina and Hurricane Andrew in 1992 due to flooding, experts said.
Risk Management Solutions pegged the value of insured property in the Houston area at nearly $1 trillion, including the city’s port - the nation’s second busiest.
Katrina swiped New Orleans and other parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast in August 2005, killing 1,500 people. That storm was the costliest in U.S. history, causing at least $81 billion in damage.
Katrina also damaged President George W. Bush’s standing. He and his administration were strongly criticized for the slow federal response to the disaster.
Additional reporting by Anna Driver, Eileen O'Grady, Erwin Seba and Bruce Nichols; writing by Chris Baltimore and Mary Milliken; Editing by David Storey