HOUSTON - Rescuers in boats, helicopters and high-water trucks set out across the flood-stricken Texas coast Saturday in a monumental effort to reach tens of thousands of people who stubbornly ignored warnings of 'certain death' and tried to ride out Hurricane Ike.
The storm roared ashore hours before daybreak with 110 mph winds and towering waves, smashing houses, flooding thousands of homes, blowing out windows in Houston's skyscrapers, and cutting off power to more than 3 million people, perhaps for weeks.
By evening, it appeared that Ike was not the single calamitous stroke that forecasters had feared. But the full extent of the damage - or even a rough sense of how many people may have perished - was still unclear, in part because many roads were impassable.
Some authorities feared that this could instead become a slow-motion disaster, with thousands of victims trapped in their homes, waiting for days to be rescued.
'We will be doing this probably for the next week or more. We hope it doesn't turn into a recovery,' said Sheriff's Sgt. Dennis Marlow in Orange County, where more than 300 people had to be rescued from flooded homes. He said that was only 'a drop in the bucket' compared with the number still stranded.
By some estimates, more than 140,000 of the 1 million or so people who had been ordered to evacuate the coast as Ike drew near may have tried to tough it out. Many of them evidently realized the mistake too late, and pleaded with authorities in vain to save them overnight.
Ronnie Sharp, 65, and his terrier-mix Princess, had to be rescued from his trailer in Orange County when water reached his knees. 'I was getting too many snakes in the house, otherwise I would have stayed,' Sharp said. He said he lost everything in the flood but his medicine and some cigarettes.
After the storm had passed, National Guardsmen, members of the Coast Guard, FEMA representatives and state and local law enforcement authorities mobilized for what Gov. Rick Perry pronounced 'the largest search-and-rescue operation in the history of the state of Texas.'
Some emergency officials were angry and frustrated that so many people ignored the warnings.
'When you stay behind in the face of a warning, not only do you jeopardize yourself, you put the first responders at risk
as well,' Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said. 'Now we're going to see this play out.'
Steve LeBlanc, Galveston's city manager, said: 'There was a mandatory evacuation, and people didn't leave, and that is very frustrating because now we are having to deal with everybody who did not heed the order. This is why we do it, and they had enough time to get out.'
Because Ike was so huge - some 500 miles across, making it nearly as big as Texas itself - hurricane winds pounded the coast for hours before and after the storm's center came ashore. Ike soon weakened to a tropical storm as it made its way inland, but continued to pound the state with 60 mph winds and rain.
Officials were encouraged to learn that the storm surge topped out at only 15 feet - far lower than the catastrophic 20-to-25 foot wall of water forecasters had feared.
Preliminary industry estimates put the damage at at least $8 billion.
Damage to the nation's biggest complex of refineries and petrochemical plants appeared to be slight, but gasoline prices shot up for fear that the supply would be interrupted by power outages and the time necessary to restart a refinery. In some parts of the country, gas prices surged briefly to $5 a gallon.
As the day wore on, hundreds of people were rescued from their flooded-out homes, in many cases by emergency crews that had to make their way through high water and streets blocked by peeled-away roofs, wayward yachts and uprooted trees.
But the day was already half over before the winds died down enough for authorities to begin the rescue, and the search was almost certain to be suspended before dark because of the dangers posed by downed power lines and flooded roads. A portion of hard-hit Galveston had yet to be examined.
The storm, which killed more than 80 in the Caribbean before reaching the U.S., was blamed for at least two lives in Texas. A woman was killed in her sleep when a tree fell on her home near Pinehurst. A 19-year-old man slipped off a jetty near Corpus Christi and was apparently washed away. Louisiana officials said a 16-year-old boy drowned Saturday after falling out of a fishing boat in Ike-flooded Bayou Dularge.
Lisa Lee spent hours on the roof of her Bridge City home with her husband, John, her 16-year-old brother, William Robinson, and their two dogs. They dove into 8-foot floodwaters and swam to safety after a sheriff's deputy arrived in a truck and drove as close to their home as he could. Their dogs paddled to safety behind them.
'It was like a dream,' said William Robinson, while his sister shivered in a blanket at a shelter set up at a Baptist church in Orange.
A convoy of search-and-rescue teams from Texas and California drove into Galveston - where the storm came ashore at 3:10 a.m. - after bulldozers cleared away mountains of debris. Interstate 45, the only road onto the island, was littered with large overturned yachts, dead pelicans and twisted debris from homes and docks.
Homes and other buildings in Galveston and homes burned unattended during the height of Ike's fury; 17 collapsed because crews couldn't get to them to douse the flames. There was no water or electricity on the island, and the main hospital, the University of Texas Medical Branch, flew critically ill patients to other medical center.
Sedonia Owen, 75,
and her son, Lindy McKissick, stayed to shoo off looters. She was armed with a shotgun, watching floodwaters recede from her front porch. 'My neighbors told me, 'You've got my permission. Anybody who goes into my house, you can shoot them,' Owen said.
President Bush declared a major disaster in his home state of Texas and ordered immediate federal aid.
In downtown Houston, shattered glass rained down on the streets below the JPMorgan Chase Tower, the state's tallest building at 75 stories. Trees were uprooted in the streets, road signs mangled by wind.
'I think we're like at ground zero,' said Mauricio Diaz, 36, as he walked along Texas Avenue across the street from the Chase building. Metal blinds from the tower dotted the street, along with red seat cushions, pieces of a wood desk and office documents marked 'highly confidential.'
Southwest Louisiana was spared a direct hit, but Ike's surge of water penetrated some 30 miles inland, flooding thousands of homes, breaching levees and soaking areas still recovering from Labor Day's Hurricane Gustav. Officials said the flooding was worse than it was during 2005's Hurricane Rita, which hit the Louisiana-Texas line.
But there was good news: A stranded freighter with 22 men aboard made it through the storm safely, and a tugboat was on the way to save them. And an evacuee from Calhoun County gave birth to a girl in the restroom of a shelter with the aid of an expert in geriatric psychiatry who delivered his first baby in two decades.
In Surfside Beach, retired carpenter and former Marine Ray Wilkinson became something of a celebrity for a day: He was the lone resident in the town of 805 to defy the order to leave. Authorities found him Saturday morning, drunk.
'I consider myself to be stupid,' Wilkinson, 67, said through a thick, tobacco-stained beard. 'I'm just tired of running from these things. If it's going to get you, it's going to get you.'
He added: 'I didn't say I had all my marbles, OK?'