12 September 2008 15:48 [Source: ICIS news]
HOUSTON (ICIS news)--Local government authorities urged residents of Houston to immediately evacuate low-lying coastal areas on Friday, with Hurricane Ike less than 24 hours from pummelling the centre of the US petrochemical industry.
"It's going to be a scary 36 hours," Mayor Bill White said in a televised news conference.
Although Ike was not expected to make landfall until the early hours of Saturday, the storm surge caused by the massive hurricane was already breaching the sea wall on Galveston island to the immediate southeast of Houston.
Television reports showed some residential neighbourhoods on Galveston inundated with water already.
Forecasters said Ike was a bigger storm system than Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in August 2008.
A spokeswoman for utility company CenterPoint Energy said Houston residents should brace for many power lines to come down in the wind.
"They need to be prepared to be without electricity for up to two weeks," Centerpoint spokeswoman Leticia Lowe said in a television interview.
Authorities have been concerned that many residents have resisted the idea of evacuation because of bitter memories of the chaotic mass evacuation in 2005 before Hurricane Rita.
Around 2m people were trapped in traffic gridlock for hours before that storm eventually delivered only a glancing blow to Houston.
So far on Friday the major highways leading out of Houston were relatively clear, White and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.
They stressed that there were ample gasoline supplies available despite reports of service stations running dry. Panic buying had emerged on Thursday as Ike's forecast path was gradually revised northward to be a direct hit on the city.
"If you have not left, leave now," Emmett said. "If you live in one of the evacuation zones, get out."
Public shelters were ready to house evacuees in the towns of Bryan/College Station, Huntsville and Lufkin, he said.
Most companies and schools in the Houston area were closed on Friday, while most local traders who communicate via instant messenger services were not on line.
Petrochemical plants were also mostly shut down ahead of the storm.
Winds of as much as 100 mph (160km/hour) or more would be felt through the middle of the Houston region, which is home to an estimated 6m people and is the fourth largest metropolitan area in the US.
Ike would also deliver heavy rain that would likely cause flooding well inland.
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