Power outage totals across region approaching 1.5 million
By DALE LEZON and LINDSAY WISE Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Sept. 13, 2008, 3:08AM
As Hurricane Ike surged onto Galveston Island this morning, many of the estimated 23,000 residents who ignored a mandatory evacuation order phoned for rescues to no avail because emergency workers were called off the streets, officials said.
Help wasn't expected until after dangerous storm conditions subsided.
The center officially landed at 2:10 a.m. and whipped the barrier island with sustained winds as strong as 110 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm surge was expected to be as high as 14 feet to 17 feet at Galveston and possibly greater in Chambers County to the northeast.
"We don't know what we're going to find tomorrow," said the city's mayor, Lyda Ann Thomas. "We hope we'll find that the people who didn't leave here are alive and well."
City Manager Steve LeBlanc went so far as to ask the media not to photograph "certain things" in the aftermath, referring to the possibility of dead bodies.
Officials in Brazoria County said as many as 35 percent of residents in mandatory evacuation zones stayed behind, or about 67,000. That would put about 90,000 Texans in potentially surge-susceptible areas in the two counties.
Power was out all across Galveston Island, much of which already had flooded. Two house fires are burning, as did a boat warehouse that was widely photographed earlier Friday.
Power lines are down, he said, and it may be weeks before it can be restored.
Assessment teams will get out this morning after the storm. Fifty people were rescued from high water and about 260 are in a shelter at Ball High School.
LeBlanc said he didn't know how long it would take before evacuated residents could return. The city may briefly allow them back in to check on their homes, but will then ask them to leave again until the city is safe.
"We feel the city of Galveston will have suffered from this storm," she said.
As of 2 a.m., power outages were widespread, heavily concentrated from the northwestern corner of Beltway 8 stretching southward to Galveston and east to Baytown, the edge of CenterPoint Energy's service area, spokesman Floyd LeBlanc said.
About 1.3 million of CenterPoint's approximately 2 million customers were in the dark. Counting additional outages north and east of the area in Entergy Texas' region, the number was approaching or exceeding 1.5 million.
Based on past experience, it could be a week or more before some customers get power back.
Galveston ordered an 8 p.m. curfew which is set to end at 5 a.m. today but will continue along the same overnight schedule for Galveston and Pelican Island through Monday morning.
"We're going to make sure these homes are safe when (evacuees) return," said Thomas, the mayor.
Earlier Friday, Galveston's Steve LeBlanc expressed dismay that so much of the city's population remained behind to ride out the storm.
''It's unfortunate that the warning we sent out the mayor's mandatory evacuation was not heeded,'' he said.
By comparison, nearly 100 percent of Galveston left the island during Hurricane Rita, just three years ago.
Galveston Island was the site of the nation's deadliest natural disaster the hurricane of 1900, which claimed at least 6,000 lives.
In Harris County, a curfew started at 7 p.m. and is in place until 6 a.m. today for the areas covered by the mandatory evacuation. The Harris County curfew will be for Friday and Saturday night, for the nine evacuated ZIP codes only.
Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt and Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas said they would be strictly enforcing those curfews to protect evacuees' homes.
The anticipated surge prompted Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, to remark: "This is pretty much a worst-case scenario for flooding the Gulf Coast area."
FEMA anticipates about 100,000 homes will be flooded and as many as several million people could be without power.
''It is a potentially catastrophic hurricane,'' Chertoff said. ''We will move as swiftly as possible to relieve suffering.''
The Harris County Flood Control District is tracking surge-related flooding along and around Clear Lake and on low-lying areas on the Houston Ship Channel, the San Jacinto River and San Jacinto River tributaries, meteorologist Jeff Lindner said.
The bank is nearly full on Clear Creek east of Bay Area Boulevard and on Greens Bayou south of Interstate 10, he said. The bank is half full on Brays Bayou at Lawndale and Eastward and one-third full on the lower end of Little Vince Bayou, he said.
The flooding is entirely related to the storm surge, rather than rainfall, Lindner said. The county's natural elevation will allow all rainwater to drain from the upper end of the watersheds to the lower end, he added.
"We really don't want people to be overly concerned about traditional bayou flooding," County Judge Ed Emmett said. "The rain won't necessarily cause those bayous to go out of their banks."
Several hundred people on the Bolivar Peninsula ignored the call to evacuate forcing Coast Guard helicopter crews to rescue 45 people trapped on the peninsula. Others were rescued by other agencies, Chertoff said.
Helicopters were to be grounded when hurricane winds picked up, he said.
And once it hits, thousands of people will be without power and food, said FEMA Administrator David Paulison. Emergency personnel have shipped in 2.5 million MREs (meals ready to eat) in Texas, and another 3 million will be brought in, he said.
The Red Cross expects to feed 500,000 people.
Ike, when its core was still 135 miles at sea, indirectly claimed its first victim Friday when a 10-year-old Montgomery boy was killed by a falling branch as his parents cut down a tree.
Montgomery County authorities, who declined to immediately identify the victim, said the boy was killed about 9 a.m. as his parents cut down the tree, apparently in preparation for the coming storm.
The boy was dead on arrival at Tomball Regional Medical Center.
A 19-year-old Corpus Christi man was presumed drowned after storm surge from Hurricane Ike swept him from a jetty, Corpus Christi Police Chief Bryan Smith said.
Three people were injured in a two-alarm fire at Brennan's restaurant, a Midtown institution on Smith Street. Fire officials said the blaze could threaten adjacent buildings.
Flooding and rescues were numerous throughout the region.
At High Island, at the base of Bolivar Peninsula, emergency workers used an Army surplus personnel carrier to help rescue dozens of people stranded in high water along Texas 124.
"These people had ignored the evacuation order," said Ryan Holzaepfel, Chambers County's emergency management. "Some were hanging from telephone poles, searching for any high ground they could find."
He said workers helped evacuate 33 people, who then were bused to a shelter in Canton, in northeast Texas.
The High Island residents told their rescuers they had gone through previous storms and believed they would be safe there until the water began rising quickly Friday.
"Cars were submerged. They were wading in it, feeling trapped. They called and wanted help to get out of there," said Holzaepfel.
By early afternoon, the police chief in the small Brazoria County town of Surfside Beach said the entire island was covered by rushing water, chest-deep in some places.
Also this afternoon, the Coast Guard and the Army aborted a rescue mission to save the 22 crew members on a Cypriot freighter that had lost power in towering swells 90 miles off Galveston's coast. The ship, loaded with petroleum coke floated helplessly as Hurricane Ike approached.
New Orleans-based Petty Officer Jaclyn Young said the two helicopters and three other aircraft that had been sent could not safely rescue the crew. The Coast Guard will not be able to approach until the storm has passed.
''We will talk to them hourly and they have electricity and no injuries," Young said. "They have an emergency beacon to put on if they get in distress.''