GALVESTON, Texas - A massive Hurricane Ike sent white waves crashing over a seawall and tossed a disabled 584-foot freighter in rough water as it steamed toward Texas on Friday, threatening to devastate coastal towns and batter America's fourth-largest city.
Ike's eye was forecast to strike somewhere near Galveston late Friday or early Saturday then head inland for Houston, but the sprawling weather system nearly as big as Texas was already buffeting the Gulf Coast and causing flooding in areas still recovering from Labor Day's Hurricane Gustav.
Because of its ominous size, storm surge and flooding were the greatest threats. In unusually strong language, forecasters even warned of 'certain death' for stalwarts who insisted on staying in Galveston; most had complied, along with hundreds of thousands of fellow Texans in counties up and down the coastline. But in a move designed to avoid highway gridlock as the storm closed in, most of Houston's 2 million residents hunkered down and were ordered not to leave.
White waves as tall as 15 feet were already crashing over Galveston's seawall. It was enough to scare away Tony Munoz and his wife, Jennifer, who went down to the water to take pictures, then decided that riding out the storm wasn't a good idea after all.
'We started seeing water come up on the streets, then we saw this. We just loaded up everything, got the pets, we're leaving,' Tony Munoz, 33, said. 'I've been through storms before but this is different.'
Ike's 105-mph winds and potential 50-foot waves initially stopped the Coast Guard from attempting a risky helicopter rescue of 22 people aboard a 584-foot freighter that broke down in the path of the storm about 90 miles southeast of Galveston, Chief Petty Officer Mike O'Berry said. The ship was hauling petroleum coke used to fuel furnaces at steel plants.
But midday Friday, the Coast Guard changed its mind and decided to stage a rescue. Petty Officer Tom Atkeson said rescue swimmers and Coast Guard and Air Force aircraft were on their way to reach the ship.
Daniel Brown, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center, said Ike was about 600 miles across, roughly the distance between Houston and Panama City, Fla. 'It takes up almost the northern Gulf,' he said.
The hurricane center said tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 mph extended across 550 miles, and hurricane-force winds of at least 74 mph stretched for 240 miles. A typical storm has tropical storm-force winds stretching only 300 miles.
Yet a stubborn few defied orders to leave. Emory Sallie, 44, of Galveston, said he had braved storms in the past and didn't think Ike would be any different. He didn't believe the dire warnings - he was more worried about the wind, not the flooding.
'If the island is going to disappear it has to be a tsunami,' he said, as he walked along the block where his home is located, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. 'If it ain't your time you ain't going anywhere.'