Traylor Bros.
Improvements such as the nearly complete Galveston Causeway, have helped improve Texas hurricane evacuation efforts.

As Hurricane Ike took aim at the Texas coast, businesses and schools as far distant as Austin, some 200 miles inland, began canceling classes and postponing events. The enormous hurricane loomed over more than half of the Gulf of Mexico early Friday, producing sustained winds in excess of 100 mph.

The storm is expected to strengthen to a Category 3 before landfall at around 1 a.m. Saturday morning. On its current predicted path, Ike’s eye will cross slightly west of Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel, creating a storm surge of more than 16 ft in Galveston Bay, Sabine Lake and Port Arthur. In a statement released today, Gov. Rick Perry (R) said the surge could put those communities under water.

The center of the storm is expected to make landfall near Galveston, but it could cause substantial damage along some 500 mi of the Gulf Coast, from Southwestern Louisiana to Corpus Christi. At least eight counties and two cities—Galveston and La Porte—are under mandatory evacuations while other communities are observing voluntary evacuation orders.

While Gulf Coast petrochemical complexes began securing plants and shutting down operations Thursday, Judge Ed Emmett declared Houston’s Harris County to be in a state of disaster and called for mandatory evacuations of low-lying areas. The Port of Houston closed Thursday afternoon, but Port Authority officials say it expects to be fully operational by Monday, Sept. 15.

The Texas Dept. of Transportation suspended lane closures in preparation of evacuations. “We got the contractors out of there, and I think that’s helped” says Karen Othon, spokeswoman for TxDOT’s Houston division. She added that TxDOT’s courtesy control crews would continue to offer roadside assistance and three to five gallons of gas to help stalled vehicles. “Traffic is congested, but it’s moving,” she says. Even with recent improvements on the Galveston Causeway, traffic was stop and go yesterday, she said. Traylor Bros., Evansville, Ind., is nearing completion of a $162-million, 2.3-mile-long Galveston Causeway. The twin 8,592-ft long, 74-ft wide structures span the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Each bridge will have four lanes in each direction.

The Galveston District of the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers closed its operations Thursday, as Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas called for a mandatory evacuation of the entire city of Galveston. The Fort Worth District assumed lead district responsibility, as Galveston District personnel relocated critical assets and personnel to an emergency operations center at Addick Field Office on the west side of Houston, says Judy Marsicano, spokeswoman for the Corps’ Fort Worth District.

The Corps is monitoring hurricane protection structures at Freeport, Texas City and Port Arthur, Texas. The structures were built by the Corps, but are maintained by local government sponsors. The Corps does inspect them annually. There are no federal levees on the coastal areas where hurricane Ike is expected to make landfall.

Corps emergency operations managers are coordinating with local officials and reservoir control engineers in their flood damage reduction efforts. “We are working closely with local and state officials to keep abreast of this situation and to assist them in any way possible,” says Colonel David C. Weston, Galveston District commander.

Teams will assist local levee districts with technical advice and support and flood fighting supplies, such as sandbags, have been pre-positioned.

Marc Shephard, spokesman for TxDOT’s Beaumont district, says he is concerned about what 20-ft storm surge could have on current construction projects in Orange County and Port Arthur.

Representatives from Texas electric and telecommunications providers from across the state appeared before the Texas Public Utility Commission on Thursday. Terry Hadley, spokesperson for the TPUC, says emergency units have been activated and collectively “they are prepared with crews coming in.”

“Some have crews just returning from Louisiana,” Hadley says. “As one representative said, �Unfortunately, everybody’s well prepared because it has happened a lot this summer.’”

In July, Hurricane Dolly struck the Texas coast making landfall at South Padre Island, about 35 miles northeast of Brownsville, causing flooding and affecting utility operations in the area. It took several days to restore power on the Island, Hadley says.

“Everyone is preparing for a major event,” Hadley adds. “We don’t know how extensive it will be. But the size of the area of impact seems so large, it’s a wide range of the Texas Coast and inland.” He adds that if high-force winds continue moving through the state, the utilities companies are prepared to share resources to get help to affected areas.

Gov. Perry, speaking at a press conference on Thursday, said if Hurricane Ike were to make landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, “it would be the strongest storm to hit the Texas Coast in three years.”

When Hurricane Rita came onshore near the Texas/Louisiana border on Sept. 24, 2005, it caused more than $5 billion in damage and some 100 deaths, many during evacuation efforts.

In 1983, Hurricane Alicia was responsible for the loss of 21 lives when it hit the Galveston/Houston area.

Perry’s takeaway message to Texans in Ike’s path Thursday was, “finish your preparations because Ike is dangerous and he’s on his way.”

The National Weather Service sent an even stronger message in its advisory on Thursday, which stated “persons not heeding evacuation orders will face certain death.”

It was 108 years ago this week, on Sept. 8, 1900, that the deadliest storm in U.S. history devastated Galveston killing more than 6,000 people, leveling much of the city. The 1900 Storm is still the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. The Galveston Seawall, today approximately 10 mi-long, 17-ft high and 16-ft thick at its base, was constructed after the storm by the Corps of Engineers and Galveston County in 1902 in a cooperative effort to provide protection against hurricane-generated wave action. It has yet to be overtopped by a storm surge from a hurricane.