for National Geographic News
A last-minute turn by Hurricane Ike as it approached the Texas coast early today spared heavily populated Galveston from an expected 25-foot (7.6-meter) storm surge, according to meteorologists. (See Hurricane Ike photos.)
But Ike still delivered a punishing blow to the island city, shredding buildings, flooding streets, and knocking out power for millions of people.
Meteorologist Keith Blackwell at the University of South Alabama's Coastal Weather Research Center in Mobile said Ike made a sudden turn to the north-northwest several hours before it came ashore around 3 a.m. EST.
That turn made a dramatic difference in the height of the storm surge—a mound of water pushed ashore by the storm's winds—at Galveston, Blackwell said.
"This prevented not only a massive storm surge from sweeping over the eastern end of Galveston Island, but also prevented a massive storm surge moving up Galveston Bay toward Houston," Blackwell said.
The storm's strongest winds were 110 miles (177 kilometers) an hour, making it a very strong Category 2 hurricane.
The massive storm, nearly as big as Texas itself, moved over Houston before dawn, blowing out windows and scattering documents from skyscrapers.
Ike inundated the barrier island of Galveston with a 13.5-foot (4-meter) storm surge—a wall of water pushed ashore by the storm's winds.
But Ike had been expected to send a storm surge as high as 25 feet (7.6. meters) above normal high tide toward Galveston and Houston.
The University of South Alabama's Blackwell said Ike's winds could have been much worse because the hurricane was still gaining strength as it came ashore.
"This storm was really beginning to tighten up," Blackwell said. Had Hurricane Ike stayed over water for only a few more hours, its winds could have been much more powerful at landfall.
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