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Hurricane Ike's Last Minute Turn Dampens Blow

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
September 13, 2008
 
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.

(VIDEO: Hurricane Ike Devastation.)

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.

In the Storm's Path

The anticipated surge prompted National Weather Service officials to issue a rare "certain death" warning to coastal residents in the path of this surge. The advisory warned them that they could face certain death from flooding if they did not get out of the way.

(See related story: Hurricane Ike's 9-Foot Floods to Bring "Certain Death" [September 12, 2008])

As many as a hundred thousand residents did not leave, and now emergency management personnel are facing the potentially difficult rescue situation.

"We'll probably do the largest search-and-rescue operation that's ever been conducted in the state of Texas," Andrew Barlow, spokesperson for Texas Governor Rick Perry, told the Associated Press.

Because of Ike's unusually large size, hurricane-force winds and rain continued to pound a large swath of Texas and Louisiana well after landfall, forcing rescue crews to wait for the storm to pass to begin operations.

As of 2 p.m. EST, many roads were still impassable, and it remained unclear how many people might have died or been injured in Ike's wake.

Lieutenant Matthew Meinhold of the U.S. Coast Guard in Key West, Florida, said other Coast Guard bases are already sending helicopters to Texas to help with search and rescue missions.

"We'll make the best attempt to help that we can," Meinhold said. "If we can respond, we will."

A sheriff's deputy at the Galveston County Jail who identified himself as Sergeant K. Kim said the jail, which is on the eastern end of Galveston Island, had not been inundated by the storm surge.

"We're not taking on any water," Kim told National Geographic News. "We're not floating away, like everybody says. We got a little structural damage on the roof, but the building is standing and everybody is fine."

Kim said he did not know what was happening elsewhere in the city because he had not been outside since before the hurricane arrived.

Elsewhere, six feet (1.8 meters) of water had been reported in the Galveston County Courthouse shortly before Ike's eye came ashore, said Montra Lockwood, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Lockwood said eleven feet (3.4 meters) of water had been reported at the University of Texas Medical School Hospital in Galveston.

Sam Shamburger, who also is a meteorologist at NWS office in Lake Charles, said Hurricane Ike had caused a record storm surge of 14.2 feet (4.3 meters) at Sabine Pass, Texas, just west of Lake Charles.

And Chris Landsea, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, said that although the worst of the storm surge missed Houston and Galveston, the surge still might reach 25 feet (7.6 meters) farther up the coast where the population is much less.

"We don't know yet what the highest storm surge is going to be in the upper bays and rivers," Landsea said.

Ike was downgraded to a tropical storm by Saturday evening and was expected to move northeast into western Arkansas.


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

HURRICANE BASICS



Hurricane Facts
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Forecasting Killer Hurricanes (National Geographic Magazine)
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