CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas | Hurricane Ike crashed into Galveston Island and the Houston area early Saturday as a strong Category 2 storm, blowing out windows, disrupting power to millions of people and flooding low-lying areas.
In Houston, rescue crews in high-wheel trucks, helicopters and boats ventured out to pluck people from their homes Saturday in an all-out search for thousands of Texans who stubbornly stayed behind to face Hurricane Ike.
State and local officials began searching for survivors by late morning, just hours after Ike roared ashore in Galveston with 110 mph winds, heavy rains and towering waves. Overnight, dispatchers received thousands of calls from frightened residents who bucked mandatory orders to leave as the storm closed in.
For more photos of Ike’s devastation: Ike’s Wrath Continues
Authorities were frustrated but vowed to get to the more than 140,000 people who stayed behind as soon as they could.
“This is a democracy,” said Mark Miner, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican. “Local officials who can order evacuations put out very strong messages. Governor Perry put out a very strong warning. But you can’t force people to leave their homes. They made a decision to ride out the storm. Our prayers are with them.”
For more, check out the Hurricane Ike Blog.
The storm sideswiped Corpus Christi, though the hurricane’s first U.S. death was reported here when four men were pulled out to sea Friday afternoon off a Padre Island pier.
Three of the men - who had jumped in to save a 19-year-old man who fell into the crushing waves and storm surge - were rescued and hospitalized. The Coast Guard searched for the fourth man before suspending the search Friday night.
In Montgomery County, a woman died early Saturday when a tree fell and crushed her as she slept in her home near Pinehurst.
Ike killed more than 80 in the Caribbean before hitting the United States, and its death toll on the Gulf Coast is expected to rise.
President Bush declared nearly all of the coastal counties a federal disaster area, opening access to federal aid.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) is conducting 13 missions for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including aerial reconnaissance, transport and law enforcement.
“Hurricane Ike has been a devastating storm and has impacted the lives of millions of Texans,” said Ronald Vitiello, Border Patrol chief of the Rio Grande Valley and CBP lead federal coordinator for Hurricane Ike response.
CBP sent a convoy of nearly 40 vehicles and more than 110 employees from the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station up to Houston and Galveston early Saturday, said William G. Raymond, deputy director of the P-3 Operations Center at CBP.
Officials were encouraged that the storm surge topped out at only 13.5 feet - far lower than the catastrophic 20- to 25-foot wall of water forecasters had feared, but major roads were washed out near Galveston, and the damage was still immense.
Residents of Houston emerged to take in the damage, even as glass from the JPMorgan Chase Tower - the state’s tallest building, at 75 stories - continued to rain on streets below. Trees were uprooted in the streets, and road signs were mangled by wind.
“I think we’re like at ground zero,” said Mauricio Diaz, 36, as he walked along Texas Avenue across the street from the Chase building. Metal blinds from the tower dotted the street, along with red seat cushions, pieces of a wood desk and office documents marked “highly confidential.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said search-and-rescue teams were at the ready in Houston, poised to go to the aid of those stranded by Hurricane Ike. At a sports arena, tractor-trailers and large sport utility vehicles sat idle as the vast storm churned northward across the state.
The storm, nearly as big as Texas itself, blasted a 500-mile stretch of coastline in Louisiana and Texas. It breached levees, flooded roads and led more than 1 million people to evacuate and seek shelter inland.
South of Galveston, authorities said 67-year-old Ray Wilkinson was the only resident who didn’t evacuate from Surfside Beach, population 800. He was drunk and waving when authorities reached him Saturday morning.
“He kinda drank his way through the night,” Mayor Larry Davison said.
Some homes were destroyed, but the storm was not as bad for Surfside Beach as Mr. Davison had feared. “But it’s pretty bad,” he said. “It’ll take six months to clean it up.”
Farther up the coast, much of Bridge City and downtown Orange were under as much as 8 feet of water, and rescue teams in dump trucks were plowing through in an effort to reach families trapped on roofs and inside attics.
“Right now, we’re pretty devastated,” Orange County Judge Carl Thibodeaux said. “We’re still watching the water steadily rise slowly. Hopefully, it’s going to crest soon.”
In Louisiana, Ike’s storm surge inundated 1,800 homes. In Plaquemines Parish, near New Orleans, a sheriff’s spokesman said levees were overtopped and floodwaters were higher than either hurricane Katrina or Rita.
As Ike moved north later Saturday morning, the storm dropped to a Category 1 hurricane, then a tropical storm. At 2 p.m. EDT, the storm’s center was just southeast of Palestine, Texas, and moving toward the north at nearly 16 mph. Winds were still at 60 mph, and tornadoes were possible.
Because Ike was so huge, hurricane winds pounded the coast for hours before landfall and continued through the morning, with the worst winds and rain coming after the center came ashore, forecasters said.
Ike landed near the nation’s biggest complex of refineries and petrochemical plants, and already, prices are reacting. Gas prices nationwide rose nearly 6 cents a gallon to $3.733, according to auto club AAA, the Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express.
More than 4 million customers lost power in southeast Texas, along with an estimated 140,000 more in Louisiana. That’s in addition to the 60,000 still without power from Labor Day’s Hurricane Gustav. Suppliers warned it could be weeks before all service was restored.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.