Hurricane Ike continues its slow progress across the Gulf of Mexico as storm watchers try to determine where it will make landfall. But, as VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, regardless of where Ike's eye moves over land, outer bands bringing high winds, heavy rains and possibly tornadoes will extend over a wide area that includes almost all of southeast Texas.
Officials have ordered the mandatory evacuation of coastal areas south of Houston including all of Galveston Island. Their main concern is a powerful storm surge that could be several meters high when it comes ashore late Friday or in the early morning hours Saturday.
Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff came to the Gulf Coast to supervise federal operations and warned people in the most vulnerable zones not to defy evacuation orders.
"This is not a game of chicken with Mother Nature; Mother Nature will win that game," said Michael Chertoff. "This is a time to heed the instructions of your local officials and do what they tell you to do."
Highways leading from the coast have been jammed with both people from the mandatory evacuation areas and people from other areas farther inland that could experience flooding and wind damage from the hurricane. Many gasoline stations have run dry and the ones still open have long lines. State officials are providing gasoline trucks along major evacuation routes to assist motorists who run out of fuel. Grocery stores are also experiencing heavy business as people make last-minute runs for food and supplies to ride out the storm.
Houston Mayor Bill White says this is a time for neighbors to help neighbors and for families to prepare for a difficult couple of days.
"Take some personal responsibility for your water, candles, flashlights all the common sense things we have been talking about," said Mayor White. "This is not going to be pleasant, but if we have a positive attitude and are helping each other then we will get through this."
Ike is currently ranked as a Category 2 hurricane with sustained winds above 160 kilometers an hour, but experts say it will likely reach Category Three in the coming hours. Computer models show possible tracks for the storm ranging from the south Texas coast near Corpus Christi to the western Louisiana shore around the fishing town of Cameron, which was all but completely destroyed by Hurricane Rita in September, 2005. Most of the models show Ike zeroing in on Galveston, a low-lying island which experts say has inadequate protection from such a strong storm. If those models hold true, the main part of the violent storm would pass inland over downtown Houston threatening large urban areas with torrential rains and high winds.
Even after it makes landfall and weakens, Hurricane Ike could pose a threat to almost all of eastern Texas and some nearby states because the heavy rains it will produce could cause severe flooding in low-lying areas and along rivers. In addition, the storm will likely have an impact on energy supplies since hundreds of oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico have had to shut down in anticipation of its arrival.
There are also 20 refineries and a large number of distribution terminals in this area and at least some of them will likely be shut down as the storm passes through. If there is extensive damage to any of these facilities it would likely result in a shortage of transportation fuel in the United States and a spike in prices.