Hurricane Ike: Lessons Learned from a Catastrophic Storm

Tom McDonald discusses the catastrophic storm that struck the coast of Texas and the lessons learned by fire-rescue personnel.Around 2 A.M. on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008, the eye of Hurricane Ike passed over the eastern tip of the island of Galveston, TX...


Tom McDonald discusses the catastrophic storm that struck the coast of Texas and the lessons learned by fire-rescue personnel. Around 2 A.M. on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008, the eye of Hurricane Ike passed over the eastern tip of the island of Galveston, TX. The city of the same name, which takes up...


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Tom McDonald discusses the catastrophic storm that struck the coast of Texas and the lessons learned by fire-rescue personnel.

Around 2 A.M. on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008, the eye of Hurricane Ike passed over the eastern tip of the island of Galveston, TX. The city of the same name, which takes up roughly the eastern half of the island, was already reeling from a day of rising water, pounding surf, increasing and relentless winds, and a pair of major fires.

If there is an American city worthy of the title of "hurricane authority," it is Galveston. On Sept. 8, 1900, an unnamed storm that meteorologists have estimated was at least a Category 4 (on the Saffir-Simpson scale, which categorizes wind velocities and likely damage at each level) slammed the city head on. The result was the worst loss of life from a natural disaster in U.S. history: an estimated 6,000 or more victims.

Following the 1900 storm, many Galveston survivors left, some settling in Houston, only 50 miles inland, but others remained and rebuilt their city. A "new and improved" Galveston resulted from two major engineering projects, the most well-known of which is the 17-foot-high seawall that protects the city's eastern half of the island. The other, lesser-known engineering feat was the act of raising the entire city eight feet, utilizing dredged soil and sand pumped from the west end of the island to fill in under buildings and over dirt streets on the east end.

In 2005, only a month after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas, Galveston was threatened by a monster hurricane named Rita. Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas earned nationwide media accolades as she ordered all persons to leave the island, although a last-minute turn to the east spared Galveston from a second annihilation.

Thomas was again tested by nature over Labor Day weekend 2008, when Hurricane Gustav threatened her city. As that storm churned across the Gulf of Mexico, she held off on a call to evacuate with forecasters insisting the storm would hit Louisiana instead. The forecasters and the mayor were right.

Ike Forms in Atlantic

As Gustav made landfall in Louisiana on Labor Day, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) gave the name "Ike" to a new storm way out in the Atlantic. Two days later, Ike became a hurricane and, in record time of just six hours, strengthened to Category 4, packing winds over 135 mph. On Sept. 7, Ike raked the Turks and Caicos Islands in the southern Bahamas before slamming Cuba and emerging in the Gulf of Mexico on Sept. 9. Unlike Atlantic storms, once in the Gulf, hurricanes have nowhere to go but onto land. It is sometimes Mexico, but the odds and history make the U.S. the most likely target.

Forecasters initially focused on south Texas for Ike's landfall, but by 4 P.M. (Central Time) on Sept. 10, they issued a hurricane watch for most of the Texas coast. The following day at 10 A.M., the NHC issued a hurricane warning for Texas' central and upper coasts as well as western Louisiana. Such a warning means that at least parts of the area warned can expect hurricane conditions within 24 hours.

Local government officials, though, cannot always wait for such warnings. Evacuations have to be planned and ordered well in advance of approaching storms, especially in urban areas. Mindful of the logistical nightmare that the 2005 Rita evacuation became and only a week removed from seriously considering evacuations for Gustav, Houston and Galveston officials deliberated carefully as Ike approached. On the morning of Sept. 11, all low-lying areas in the Houston-Galveston region were placed under a mandatory-evacuation order as a major storm surge appeared likely. Ike's coverage was large and getting larger, a key factor in how widespread the effects of a storm's surge can be.

Storm Surge

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