HOUSTON — Cars and trucks streamed inland and chemical companies buttoned up their plants Thursday as a gigantic Hurricane Ike took aim at the heart of the U.S. refining industry and threatened to send a wall of water crashing toward Houston.
Nearly 1-million people along the Texas coast were ordered to evacuate ahead of the storm, which was expected to strike late today or early Saturday. But in a calculated risk aimed at avoiding total gridlock, authorities told most people in the nation's fourth-largest city to just hunker down.
Ike was steering almost directly for Houston, where gleaming skyscrapers, the nation's biggest refinery and NASA's Johnson Space Center lie in areas vulnerable to wind and floodwaters. Forecasters said the storm was likely to come ashore as a Category 3, with winds up to 130 mph.
But the storm was so big, it could inflict a punishing blow even in those areas that do not get a direct hit. Forecasters warned that because of Ike's size and the state's shallow coastal waters, it could produce a surge, or wall of water, 20 feet high.
"It's a big storm," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said. "I cannot overemphasize the danger that is facing us. It's going to do some substantial damage. It's going to knock out power. It's going to cause massive flooding."
Perhaps the sternest warning came from the National Weather Service for residents along a gulf-facing stretch of Galveston Island and neighboring Bolivar Peninsula, which are both under mandatory evacuation orders. People ignoring the orders in single-family one- or two-story homes "will face certain death," read the statement Thursday from the local weather forecast office.
Hurricane warnings were in effect over a 400-mile stretch of coastline from south of Corpus Christi to Morgan City, La. Tropical storm warnings extended south almost to the Mexican border and east to the Mississippi-Alabama line, including New Orleans.
Most of the evacuations were limited to parts of Harris County outside Houston, as well as nearby bayous and Galveston Bay. But the 2-million residents of the city itself and 1-million in other areas of the county were asked to remain at home. Authorities hoped to avoid the kind of a frenzied evacuation that occurred before Hurricane Rita three years ago.