Texas, Louisiana start cleanup

Hurricane Ike left millions without power

HOUSTON – Texas and Louisiana began a massive recovery effort Saturday, including searching for the stranded and missing, after Hurricane Ike, a colossal storm stretching about 600 miles, pulverized the Gulf Coast with maximum winds of about 100 mph as it flattened houses, ripped the glass windows from downtown office buildings and left a wide swath of flooding and devastation in its wake.

The Category 2 hurricane made landfall at 2:10 a.m. local time and plowed across eastern Texas before being downgraded 11 hours later to a tropical storm with 60 mph winds. In its wake, Ike left about 2.4 million Texans – about 22 percent of the state – without power, in addition to 200,000 without power in Louisiana.

Texas officials and utility company spokesmen said it could be weeks before electricity is fully restored. At the moment, they said, the major concern is dealing with downed power lines and restoring service to critical facilities, such as hospitals.

President Bush declared 29 counties in Texas as well as part of Louisiana disaster areas and planned to meet today with FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison and other officials about providing federal assistance.

With one initial estimate putting Ike’s insured damage at $10 billion, Ike could become the nation’s third-costliest storm, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Andrew in 1992, and tied with Alicia in 1983, previously the costliest storm to hit Houston in recent memory.

Galveston destruction widespread

In Galveston, the worst-hit city and the place where the massive storm’s eye made landfall, authorities were still unsure whether there were fatalities among the thousands of residents who ignored warnings to flee. Rescue workers were moving block by block across 32-mile Galveston Island and had found no fatalities by the 11-mile marker. But they were concerned that there could be deaths on the more devastated western side of the island, which still lay ahead.

“We haven’t even gotten to the west end, and I know the west end is totally devastated,” City Manager Steve LeBlanc said. Two apartment buildings in the eastern part of town collapsed. “We don’t know if there are people in there or not,” LeBlanc said.

The physical destruction on Galveston Island was widespread. About 17 structures had collapsed – 10 because of fires – and among the buildings lost was a historic landmark, the Balinese Room, a storied, 79-year-old nightclub on the Gulf of Mexico that once doubled as a casino and during its heyday in the 1950s hosted Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and George Burns, among others.

About 100 people had been rescued by police and firefighters since the storm began, LeBlanc estimated at an afternoon news conference.

The one road out of town, the Galveston Causeway, was littered with trees, boats and debris, and had buckled in places; still, a few vehicles managed to make it off the island, he said. No one was allowed to drive onto the island, and the island was effectively sealed to all but rescue crews.

The rescue operation consisted of 52 helicopters, including five Black Hawks, coming from the Coast Guard and the Texas National Guard, and 7,500 Guard troops, Gov. Rick Perry told reporters at the state’s emergency operations center in Austin, the capital.

“Today, we’re focused on the search-and-rescue aspect,” Perry said. “We prepositioned the largest search-and-rescue operation in the history of the state of Texas.”

Worst fears unrealized

Despite the extensive physical damage and worries about fatalities on Galveston, Perry said, “the worst-case scenario that was spoken about … did not occur.”

Houston and Galveston were spared the worst because of a slight, last-minute shift of the storm’s track to the north, U.S. officials said in Washington.

The storm hit Galveston Bay “more or less dead on” landing at or just north of the city – rather than just south as expected – and its most powerful winds and water also landed to the north of the city because of the rotation of the storm, Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, told reporters.

“That wound up slightly, somewhat diminishing the worst-case scenario,” Chertoff said. The shift brought a surge of 9 to 16 feet to most of the Houston area, instead of the 20 feet initially forecast. “It still was a very substantial surge, and we should not minimize the impact of that,” he said.

Storm surge is basically water that is gradually pushed onto shore by the force of the winds circulating in a hurricane. It’s similar to a bathtub filling with water while being violently stirred, then overflowing.

Streets in Houston impassable

Ike was the first major hurricane to hit a densely populated urban area since Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, and Ike was the first to score a direct hit on Houston since Alicia 25 years ago. Houston has 2.2 million residents, part of a sprawling metropolitan area of 5.6 million people.

Some streets in Houston’s downtown were largely impassable Saturday, with several intersections flooded and many others blocked by downed trees, power lines, dangling streetlights and other debris.

The Buffalo Bayou, which meanders through downtown Houston, overtopped its banks, sending water gushing onto the picturesque Allen Parkway and other adjacent roads.

The 75-story JPMorgan Chase Tower – the tallest building in the state at 1,000 feet – was hit hard by Ike’s winds, which shattered most of the windows on the eastern side of the building and sent furniture, desktop computers, window blinds and files hurtling onto the streets below.

Other office towers, including the old Enron headquarters, also suffered significant damage.

Freeways around the city were strewn with twisted metal from billboards that had toppled. On city streets, some utility poles had snapped and were dangling precariously, while at some intersections traffic lights swung in the winds. A towering McDonald’s sign over an outlet on Bellfort Avenue was destroyed, with only the golden arches and a small patch of red left standing. Some cars that were abandoned by their drivers sat in water up to their windows.

Reliant Stadium, home to the NFL’s Houston Texans, sustained roof damage, and Monday’s scheduled game with the Baltimore Ravens was postponed.

A landmark restaurant, Brennan’s, just south of downtown, was destroyed by a wind-whipped fire that erupted after midnight. Three people were injured in the blaze.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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