Emergency response officials characterized Hurricane Ike as both "potentially catastrophic" and a "worst-case scenario" as the giant storm lashed the Gulf Coast, which left cities flooded, residents stranded, and even gas prices spiking in Texas and across the Southeast today.
"Our nation is facing what is, by any measures, a potentially catastrophic hurricane -- not a time, again, to play chicken with the storm," Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters today. "This storm is so big that its impact is already being felt all along the Gulf Coast. ... This is only going to continue to intensify in the hours to come."
The storm, which is expected to make landfall in or near Galveston, Texas, by tonight or early Saturday, could leave a storm surge of more than 18 feet in that city and more than 25 feet in northeast Beaumont, Chertoff said.
He also predicted that at least 100,000 people would be affected by flooding, and over 7 million people could be left without power for an undetermined amount of time.
The 72 hours after the storm will be "very challenging," Chertoff said.
Patricia Bolton Legg and her husband Rusty are hunkering down in their Galveston home to ride out the storm.
"We have food and water for two weeks, we have a generator hooked to our freezer and a bucket truck for transportation if we need to get out," said Legg.
Legg is confident she can weather the storm because her 1895 Victorian home has survived every hurricane in Galveston, starting with the great 1900 storm that took the lives of 6,000 people. After that storm, the house, which is built on pier and beams, was raised 17 feet off the ground.
"If I have to go to my attic at the top of the house, I'll be another 30 feet off the ground," said the 50-year-old Galveston City Council member who retired in May.
Legg says her Victorian home is built like a ship. It has double walls of 100-year-old petrified wood that are 10 inches thick and covered in cedar siding. It also survived Hurricanes Carla, Rita and Alicia.
The Leggs returned from their summer home in Newfoundland when they heard Hurricane Ike was on the way.
"Oh, yes, we have one more thing -- plenty of wine," said Legg.
Kevin Kolevar, the Department of Energy's assistant secretary of electricity delivery and energy reliability, warned that there will be constrained oil and gasoline supplies from the Washington, D.C., area down to the South as a result of the storm.
Heavy wind and rain in the Galveston area forced the U.S. Coast Guard to launch helicopter evacuations of nearly 100 local residents on the Bolivar Peninsula. More residents are still waiting to be rescued -- many were waist-deep in water.
"It has already started," Coast Guard Capt. Marcus Woodring said today. "The water is already overtopping Bolivar Peninsula. ... There are people down there and they need help, and we have very limited resources to respond."
The Coast Guard also sent swimmers and aircraft to the cargo ship Antalina, about 140 miles southeast of Galveston; the ship has 22 men on board. That rescue had to be called off, however, because of high winds.
"The likelihood of being rescued by an aircraft is rapidly waning," Rear Adm. Brian Salerno said.