HOUSTON (AP) - Authorities in the Houston area and along the Southeast Texas Gulf Coast ordered hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate Thursday as Ike bore down with hurricane-force winds that stretched across more than 200 miles and were expected to gain even more strength.
Forecasters issued a hurricane warning for most of the Texas Gulf Coast from the Louisiana state line to near Corpus Christi. The warning means hurricane conditions could reach the coast by late Friday with the front edge of the storm before its powerful center hits land over the weekend.
Ike is expected to become at least a Category 3 storm, meaning winds upward of 111 mph, before it comes ashore, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
In Houston, gleaming skyscrapers, the nation's biggest refinery and NASA's Johnson Space Center lie in areas that could be vulnerable to wind and floodwaters if Ike crashes ashore as a major hurricane.
If current projections of the storm's path hold up, the area surrounding Houston - home to about 4 million people - would be lashed by the eastern or "dirty" side of the storm, said meteorologist Jeff Masters, co-founder of San Francisco-based Weather Underground. This stronger side of the storm often packs heavy rains, walloping storm surge and tornadoes.
"I expect a lot of damage in Houston from this storm," said Masters, adding that Ike could cause a "huge storm surge" affecting at least 100 miles of the Texas coast.
Mandatory evacuations were ordered for tens of thousands of people in low-lying areas in Harris County, where Houston is located.
"They are areas subject to storm surge of up to 15 feet and it very important for people to understand we're not talking about gently rising water but a surge that could come into your home," said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the county's chief administrator.
Authorities hoping to avoid the traffic gridlock of three years ago, when Hurricane Rita threatened the area, urged people who don't live in eight specific zip codes in the low-lying areas and near Galveston Bay to remain at home.
"We are still saying: Please shelter in place, or to use the Texas expression, hunker down," Emmett said. "For the vast majority of people who live in our area, stay where you are. The winds will blow and they'll howl and we'll get a lot of rain but if you lose power and need to leave, you can do that later."
Evacuation orders were also issued for all of Jefferson and Orange counties, an area home to more than 320,000 people between Houston and the Louisiana state line, and part of San Patricio County farther south.
Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas extended a mandatory evacuation that had covered the west side of the island, unprotected by a seawall, to the entire island.
"This is a very hard call for me to make but our intent is to save lives," she said. "We believe it is best for people to leave."
She said the city, virtually destroyed by a hurricane in 1900 that killed more than 6,000 people and remains the nation's worst natural disaster, will not open shelters. She advised those who chose to ignore the order to have supplies like food, water and medicine and secure their homes.
Jefferson and Orange were two of three Southeast Texas counties that also had mandatory evacuations as Hurricane Gustav approached about two weeks ago. The region suffered major damage during Hurricane Rita in September 2005.
Four counties south and east of Houston had earlier announced mandatory or voluntary evacuations, and authorities began moving weak and chronically ill patients by bus to San Antonio, about 190 miles from Houston. About 1 million people live in the coastal counties between Corpus Christi and Galveston.
Some forecasts say Ike could strengthen to a fearsome Category 4 hurricane with winds of at least 131 mph over the Gulf of Mexico, and emergency officials warned it could drive a storm surge as high as 18 feet.
Ike was a Category 2 storm as of 11 a.m. Thursday with top sustained winds near 100 mph, the National Hurricane Center said. It was over the Gulf's energizing warm waters about 470 miles east-southeast of Galveston and moving west-northwest near 10 mph after ravaging homes in Cuba and killing dozens of people in the Caribbean.
Patrick Trahan, spokesman for the city of Houston, told The Associated Press early Thursday that "based on the current forecast (we) would expect to see some flooding based solely on the surge in some low-lying areas."
The oil and gas industry also watched the storm closely, fearing damage to the very heart of its operations.
Texas is home to 26 refineries that account for one-fourth of U.S. refining capacity, and most are clustered along the Gulf Coast in such places as Houston, Port Arthur and Corpus Christi. Exxon Mobil Corp.'s plant in Baytown, outside Houston, is the nation's largest refinery. Dow Chemical has a huge operation just north of Corpus Christi.
Refineries are built to withstand high winds, but flooding can disrupt operations and - as happened in Louisiana after Hurricane Gustav - power outages can shut down equipment for days or weeks. An extended shutdown could lead to higher gasoline prices.