Hurricane Ike's 9-Foot Floods to Bring "Certain Death"

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
September 12, 2008
Hurricane Ike's expected massive storm surge and flooding have prompted National Weather Service officials to issue a rare and chilling "certain death" warning as the storm barrels toward the Texas coast tonight.

(See Hurricane Ike photos.)

"We rarely issue this warning unless there is a severe, impending catastrophe," said Chris Sisco, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "It's very serious."

The warning reads: "Neighborhoods that are affected by the storm surge … and possibly entire coastal communities … will be inundated during the period of peak storm tide.

"Persons not heeding evacuation orders in single-family, one- or two-story homes may face certain death. … Widespread and devastating personal property damage is likely elsewhere."

Sisco said Ike's storm surge—a mound of water created by a hurricane's winds—could reach 20 feet (6.1 meters) around the center of the storm.

And the surge could be "funneled" as it is driven inland into some bays and rivers, causing the surge to rise to as much as 25 feet (7.6 meters) in some places, he said.

(Watch a video of a hurricane's storm surge.)

The National Weather Service advisory also warned that in some places, floodwaters could be as much as 9 feet (2.7 meters) deep more than 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) inland.

The center of Hurricane Ike is expected to make landfall late Friday night or early Saturday morning near Galveston, Texas, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of the metropolitan city of Houston.

Flooding Threat

As of Friday morning, Ike was a Category 2 hurricane with peak winds of about 105 miles (169 kilometers) an hour.

But the storm could strengthen to a Category 3 hurricane with winds of at least 111 miles (179 kilometers) an hour just before it makes landfall.

Ike's worst impact on Texas will be from flooding, not from high winds, Sisco said.

Tides already are 3 to 5 feet (0.9 to 1.5 meters) above normal along the Texas coast, said Wendy Wong, a meteorologist with the Houston-Galveston office of the National Weather Service.

Ike's surge may be high enough to go over Galveston's 17-foot (5.2-meter) seawall, which was built after the catastrophic hurricane of 1900 killed at least 6,000 people in that city.

(Related: "In Texas, Rita Stirs Memories of U.S.'s Deadliest Storm" [September 23, 2005].)

The threat of long-lasting flooding from Ike prompted the National Weather Service to issue the sternly worded warning.

The storm surge combined with the hurricane's winds could also create "battering waves" near the coast, the advisory said.

"Such waves will exacerbate property damage with massive destruction of homes, including those of block construction."

A similar warning was issued in advance of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

Instead of striking Texas, that hurricane sent a huge storm surge into New Orleans and the coast of Mississippi, causing catastrophic damage.

Moving the Ocean

One reason for Ike's massive storm surge is that the storm has put much of the Gulf of Mexico into motion, according to Keith Blackwell, a meteorologist with the University of South Alabama's Coastal Weather Research Center in Mobile.

"This storm is moving a huge amount of ocean with it, because of its huge size," Blackwell said.

(See an image of Hurricane Ike from space.)

Ike's tropical storm-force winds of up to 73 miles (117.5 kilometers) an hour extend more than 225 miles (362 kilometers) from its center, Blackwell said.

Ike struck eastern Cuba earlier this week as a powerful Category 4 hurricane with winds exceeding 131 miles (211 kilometers) an hour. (Watch video of waves crashing over buildings in Cuba.)

The storm weakened to a minimal hurricane when it moved into the Gulf of Mexico Tuesday.

Ike was expected to quickly regain strength over the Gulf's warm waters, but Blackwell said the storm was hampered by wind shear—or high-level winds—which disrupted its organization and slowed its strengthening.

The wind shear could diminish as Ike gets closer to the Texas coast, and this might allow the storm to regain some of its intensity, Blackwell said.

The last time Texas faced a storm of such magnitude was Hurricane Alicia in 1983, Blackwell said. That storm was a Category 3 hurricane with winds of about 115 miles (185 kilometers) an hour.

Willie Drye is author of Storm of the Century: the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic Books.


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