"Freak" Hurricane Ike Will Cost $22 Billion

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
September 15, 2008
Hurricane Ike will be entered into the record books for the severe damage it inflicted in and around Galveston, Texas, experts say.

"This one's going to be famous for a long time, if for no other reason than it hit Texas, which hadn't gotten a strike by a damaging hurricane in 25 years," said Jeff Masters, director of Weather Underground, a private commercial forecasting service.

Masters also noted that the cost of Ike's rampage along the Gulf Coast could reach U.S. $22 billion, which would make it the third costliest hurricane on record behind Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

The center of Hurricane Ike made landfall around 3 a.m. EDT Saturday at Galveston. The storm's peak winds were clocked at 110 miles (177 kilometers) an hour, making it just short of a major Category 3 hurricane. (See photos of the hurricane's aftermath.)

But the storm's enormous size—nearly as large as the state of Texas—spread its destruction from eastern Louisiana to Texas.

"Freak" Storm

The worst of Ike's damage was caused by its huge storm surge, a mound of water pushed ashore by the storm's winds. (Watch video of Ike's waves crash over buildings in Cuba.)

Because of Hurricane Ike's huge size, its storm surge of 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.6 meters) above normal tides was much bigger than a Category 2 hurricane usually would create.

When Hurricane Ike struck eastern Cuba last week, it was a very powerful Category 4 hurricane with peak winds of about 145 miles (233 kilometers) an hour.

But the storm's long trip across Cuba caused the hurricane to weaken and spread out.

Ike stayed large when it moved off the western tip of Cuba and into the Gulf of Mexico, said James Franklin, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

"One of the issues with Ike was how long it took for the core of the hurricane to recover from its passage over Cuba, Franklin said. "At one time, it was forecast to be a Category 4 hurricane at landfall [in the U.S.].

"I think we were anticipating that it might have intensified a little faster over the Gulf. But very often, you see storms that never recover after they have had interaction with land."

Masters said Ike became a "freak" over the Gulf of Mexico because its barometric pressure started dropping, which is usually an indication that a hurricanes winds are strengthening. Ike's winds did strengthen some, but not as much as forecasters expected.

Still, Ike was so large that its winds set most of the Gulf of Mexico into motion, and that's why its storm surge became so large and destructive.

Killer Storm

The hurricane has killed at least 34 people in the U.S.

Rescue workers are still trying to reach some coastal residents who did not heed the National Weather Service's dire warning to evacuate in advance of the storm.

Among the residents who did not leave were about 500 people on the Bolivar Peninsula just north of Galveston.

When Ike made landfall, the peninsula was hit by the storm's front-right quadrant, which carries a hurricane's peak winds and maximum storm surge.

Masters noted that 80 percent of the homes on Bolivar Peninsula were destroyed.

Dan Reilly, a meteorologist at the Houston-Galveston National Weather Service office, said Ike's storm surge combined with large pounding waves caused the damage on the peninsula.

The arrival of a storm surge is gradual as the hurricane approaches land and pushes the edges of the surge ahead of its center. But the surge steadily increases as the center of the hurricane gets closer.

When the hurricane's eye arrives, the powerful winds can create large breaking waves riding atop the surge, and these waves are very destructive as they crash down on buildings.

Reilly said the surge and pounding waves caused heavy damage on Bolivar Peninsula and the southwestern end of Galveston Island. But the surge did not top the city's 17-foot (5.2-meter) seawall, built after a devastating hurricane in 1900. (See scenes of the devastation left behind after the 1900 hurricane.)

Masters added that although the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season still has more than two months remaining, the rampage of Hurricane Ike and earlier storms that formed in the same area this summer may prevent future storms in the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida from becoming as powerful as they might otherwise have been.

"They all acted to cool down the ocean in the Gulf and around the Bahamas," Masters said. "So the next storm that comes through will not have as much heat."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.