Hurricane Ike : 'Largest search and rescue ever' as 110mph winds lash Texas

HURRICANE Ike ravaged south-east Texas early today, battering the coast with driving rain and ferocious wind gusts as residents who decided too late they should have heeded calls to evacuate made futile calls for rescue.

Though it would be daybreak before the storm's toll was clear, already the damage was extensive. Thousands of homes had flooded, roads were washed out and several fires burned unabated as crews could not reach them. But the biggest fear was that thousands of people had defied orders to flee would need rescue from submerged homes and neighbourhoods.

"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 Governor Rick Perry.

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The eye of the storm powered ashore at 3:10am local time (0810 BST) at Galveston with 110 mph winds, a strong Category 2 storm.

More than 1.3 million customers – or 2.9 million people – had lost power, and suppliers warned it could be weeks before all the service was restored. There also was fear winds could shatter the windows of the sparkling skyscrapers that define the skyline of America's fourth-largest city. Forecasters said the worst winds and rain would come after the centre came ashore.

Though 1 million people fled coastal communities near where the storm made landfall, authorities in three counties alone said roughly 90,000 stayed behind. As the front of the storm moved into Galveston, fire crews rescued nearly 300 people who changed their minds and fled at the last minute, wading through floodwaters carrying clothes and other possessions.

"We don't know what we are going to find. We hope we will find the people who are left here alive and well," Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said.

Storm surge was pushing into a neighbourhood near Johnson Space Centre where Houston Mayor Bill White had made rounds earlier with a bullhorn trying to compel people to leave. Thousands of homes could be damaged, a mayoral spokesman said, but it was too dangerous to go out and canvass the neighbourhood at the height of the storm.

A landmark restaurant, Brennan's of Houston, was destroyed by flames when firefighters were thwarted by high winds. The restaurant had been an institution for more then four decades.

Before Ike came ashore, the storm was 600 miles across, nearly as big as Texas itself. 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, with Ike expected to hurl a wall of water two stories high – 20 to 25 feet – at the coast.

Firefighters left three buildings to burn in Galveston because water was too high for fire engines to reach them. Six feet of water had collected in the Galveston County Courthouse, according to local storm reports on the National Weather Service's website.

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But there was some 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.

"It's kind of like riding a bike," Dr Mark Burns told the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung after he helped Ku Paw welcome her fourth child.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said more than 5.5 million pre-packaged meals were being sent to the region, along with more than 230 generators and 5.6 million litres of water. At least 3,500 FEMA officials were stationed in Texas and Louisiana.

If Ike is as bad as feared, the storm could travel up Galveston Bay and send a surge up the Houston Ship Channel and into the port of Houston. The port is the nation's second-busiest, and is an economically vital complex of docks, pipelines, depots and warehouses that receives automobiles, consumer products, industrial equipment and other cargo from around the world and ships out vast amounts of petrochemicals and agricultural products.

The storm also could force water up the seven bayous that thread through Houston, swamping neighbourhoods so flood-prone that they get inundated during ordinary rainstorms.

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 US dollars a gallon for fear of shortages.

Ike is the first major hurricane to hit a US metropolitan area since Katrina devastated New Orleans three years ago. For Houston, it would be the first major hurricane since Alicia in August 1983 came ashore on Galveston Island, killing 21 people and causing two billion in damage.

Houston has since then seen a population explosion, so many of the residents now in the storm's path have never experienced the full wrath of a hurricane.

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Meanwhile, thunderstorms shut down schools and knocked out power throughout southern Louisiana on Friday. An estimated 1,200 people were in state shelters in Monroe and Shreveport, and another 220 in medical needs shelters.

In south-eastern Louisiana near Houma, Ike breached levees and flooded more than 1,800 homes. More than 160 people had to be rescued from sites of severe flooding, and Governor Bobby Jindal said he expected those numbers to grow. In some extreme instances, residents of low-lying communities where waters continued to rise continued to refuse National Guard assistance to flee their homes, authorities said.

No deaths had been officially reported, but crews expected to resume searching at daybreak near Corpus Christi for a man believed swept out to sea as Ike closed in.

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