Hurricane Ike is now coming over the Texas coast with high winds and a powerful storm surge lashing the island of Galveston. The surge has already toppled some beachfront houses on the coast and flooding many roads. VOA's Greg Flakus has more from our Houston bureau.
Local and state officials say they have done all they can to prepare for this hurricane and they are now waiting for it to pass over the Houston area. State officials say one-point-two million people evacuated from the coastal areas below Houston in the past two days. People living farther inland have been urged to take shelter in their homes until the storm passes out of the area.
Houston Mayor Bill White says the Red Cross and some government agencies have set up shelters around the city for people who may need to abandon their homes after the storm, but he says they are not ready to take in anyone now.
"We will have to take a look at the power availability and those will have to be staffed with adequate people,that include volunteers in the case of Red Cross, and have adequate food and water and other services in order to be able to sustain a population. There is a very extensive plan for sheltering after the fact," he said.
The Red Cross has had to borrow money to maintain its operations here, having already gone into debt to finance relief operations for Hurricane Gustav, which struck Louisiana last week, and Hurricane Hanna, which moved up the east coast a few days later. Red Cross officials are pleading for public donations to help them continue their relief efforts.
Federal government agencies are also at work preparing for the post-hurricane situation, which will likely involve rescue of people stranded by the storm, as well as efforts to provide food, water and shelter to the millions of people in the region who may feel the impact of the storm's high winds and torrential rains.
In Washington, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters federal assets and personnel are already in staging areas ready to help after the storm.
"We will move in as swiftly as possible to relieve the suffering, to save lives and then to work very hard across all levels of government and with the private sector to get power up and running as soon as possible, food and water to those who need it, health facilities and health services to those who are sick and injured and to begin the process of recovery as quickly as possible," he said.
Federal officials estimate that over three million homes will be left without electrical power after the storm, affecting a total of seven-point-eight million people. Depending on the extent of the damage, it could take weeks to restore essential services to some areas.
Houston is also known as the world's energy capital, with many oil companies and energy services companies located here. The Gulf of Mexico produces a quarter of the oil used in the United States and refineries in the area account for more than 20 percent of the transportation fuel used in the country. Almost all those operations have been shut down in anticipation of Ike, according to US Department of Energy spokesman Kevin Kolevar.
"Currently 97 percent of the Gulf's petroleum production is offline, 93 percent of the Gulf's natural gas production is offline. There are 17 refineries along the Texas coast, from Corpus Christi to Beaumont. Thirteen have shut down in preparation for landfall, the others are at reduced runs," he said.
Kolevar says it could take weeks to restore energy production in the Houston area and that customers as far away as Washington, DC and the upper Midwest could feel the impact in terms of tight fuel supplies.