* Ike pummels Texas, Louisiana coasts, paralyzes Houston
* Refineries closed, but no major damage reported
* "A few deaths" reported, over 4 million lose electricity
* Ike weakens to tropical storm
By Chris Baltimore and Anna Driver
HOUSTON, Sept 13 - (Reuters) - Hurricane Ike powered across the densely populated Texas coast and through Houston on Saturday, bringing ferocious winds and a wall of water that flooded hundreds of miles of coastline and paralyzed the fourth-largest U.S. city.
But officials making early assessments said the storm may not have been the potential catastrophe that had been feared.
Ike, a massive hurricane that idled more than a fifth of U.S. oil production, came ashore at the barrier island city of Galveston as a strong Category 2 storm at 2:10 a.m. CDT (0710 GMT) with heavy rains and sustained 110 mph (175 kph) winds, the National Hurricane Center said.
There were unconfirmed reports of "a few deaths" from the hurricane, said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. He cited "significant surges" — high seas pushed ashore by such storms — and damage in Texas and Louisiana.
"We have already heard some initial reports of a few deaths. Obviously one death is more than we want to hear about," he told a news conference in Washington.
The Galveston and Houston ship channels were not hit as hard as expected.
"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, monitored on local television, although he said there had been "very heavy damage" to the power grid due to Ike.
The raging storm flooded Galveston and submerged 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, but the fate of those who stayed to ride out the storm remained unclear.
Chertoff refused to say whether he expected the death toll to rise. "I don’t want to speculate," Chertoff said.
"If someone stayed in an area predicted to be largely flooded, they put their lives at risk."
Oil refineries along the western shore of Galveston Bay as well as NASA’s Johnson Space Center may have been spared the worst of the flooding.
But the storm’s huge span meant it flooded parts of Louisiana, prompting a flurry of overnight rescues far from its center, authorities said.
The storm could trigger $8 billion to $18 billion in insurance claims, according to an early insurance industry computer-modeled estimate of damage.
Emergency officials along the southeast Texas coast said they were "inundated" with calls from residents who tried to ride out the storm but now needed to be rescued.
President George W. Bush declared that a major disaster existed in Texas, and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the area affected by the storm.
Tom Larsen, a senior vice-president with EQECAT Inc, which helps insurers model catastrophe risk, told Reuters that from data he had seen so far, the cost of damage was likely to fall in the middle of the projected $8 billion to $18 billion range forecast by industry computer models.
Ike also hammered parts of Louisiana, the state battered by Hurricane Katrina three years ago, flooding coastal communities and forcing rescuers out to save stranded residents.
Ike weakened to a tropical storm as it moved inland with top sustained winds near 60 mph (95 kph) and headed north. (Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in League City; Eileen O’Grady, Erwin Seba and Bruce Nichols in Houston and Jim Forsyth in San Antonio; 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 Frances Kerry)