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. 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

Storm surge is the real villain in most hurricanes. It is not wind, nor is it rain and it is not simply a big wave. Surge is the swell of ocean water that a storm pushes ahead of it. That swell can be more than 100 miles wide and more than 20 feet high. Think of it as the "mother of all high tides." The reason thousands of people died in Galveston in 1900 was storm surge. Back then, the highest point on the 30-mile-long, three-mile-wide island was less than 10 feet above sea level. Surge from a 1900-size storm can easily reach 20 feet, meaning that the highest point on the island was probably under 10 or more feet of water.

The last major hurricane to hit the Houston-Galveston area was Alicia in 1983. Alicia was barely a Category 3 storm and had a relatively tiny diameter, unlike Ike, which was a strong Category 2, but with massive coverage. Ike's hurricane-force winds at landfall stretched from east of Lake Charles, LA, to more than 50 miles west of Houston, a distance of more than 200 miles.


The Houston-Galveston area population is estimated at more than 5 million. State estimates of the number who evacuated from Ike were more than 2 million. Thousands of evacuees had to be removed quickly in the two days before the storm by ground or air ambulances, transferring critically ill and elderly people from hospitals and nursing homes in mandatory-evacuation zones.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) shipped in 2.5 million Meals Ready to Eat ("MREs") and stored them in Houston for anticipated food shortages after the storm. Center Point Energy, the owner of most electrical transmission lines in the region, recalled thousands of workers from Louisiana who had been fixing Gustav damage. The company staged hundreds of its service vehicles in the vast parking lot at Reliant Stadium, home of the Houston Texans football team. Center Point is a member of a power company "mutual aid" program that spans roughly half of the states in the union and can provide more than 10,000 linemen and tree-cutters to ravaged areas in a matter of days.

At Houston's two major airports, flights slowed to a halt by Friday afternoon, Sept. 12. Bush-Intercontinental Airport, one of only three Continental Airlines hubs in the U.S, and Hobby Airport, a major Southwest Airlines connection point, ceased operations through the weekend. With corporate headquarters in Houston, Continental had to resort to an emergency plan to maintain critical system-wide operations, moving its essential staff to a backup operations center inside a Cold War-era bunker just north of Houston. Most preparations were being made for a Category 2 storm, as large as the NHC predicted Ike would be at landfall.

Friday, Sept. 12

The Galveston Fire Department (GFD) was predictably busy all day Friday. When firefighters were not using city dump trucks to move residents to higher ground, they were wading through hip-deep water trying to battle a huge fire that consumed a yacht-storage facility on the east end of the city. West-end volunteer fire departments, without the protection of a seawall, were also unable to access a fire that involved several large beach houses. By 9 P.M. on Friday, with winds exceeding hurricane force and most of the city under several feet of water, the city of Galveston shut down all services, including responses by police and fire departments. Thomas ordered a dusk-to-dawn curfew through the weekend.

In Houston, the wind picked up around dinner time and rain began in earnest just after dark. Shortly after midnight, with winds howling near hurricane force, a fire was reported at the "grand dame" of Houston's restaurants, Brennan's, just south of downtown in a two-story brick building reminiscent of New Orleans' French Quarter where the Brennan family had its roots.

First-arriving fire companies found fire and smoke issuing from the restaurant's second floor; but, more urgently, they found a man and a child critically burned. The two victims were a restaurant employee and his child who had been allowed by the owner to stay at the restaurant to ride out the storm. Firefighters moved inside the well-involved structure to search for more victims, but soon had to retreat.

Incident Commander Bob Schlieter, a district chief working an extra shift at downtown's District 8 pulled a second alarm (HFD numbers its district chief cars with the same number of the station in which it is housed; for example, District 102 is at Station 102). Soon, he ordered all units to switch to a defensive mode as conditions inside deteriorated and flames shot out every window on the second floor and out the roof. He ordered two ladder pipes and a deck gun to be trained on the blaze. In short order, the fire darkened down, but the top half of the historic building was destroyed.

About 1:30 A.M., with power outages citywide, HFD units on the northwest side of the city were sent to an apartment fire on Antoine Street near Little York Road in a complex that has more than its share of fires during normal weather. District 4 Chief Jerry Wedgeworth arrived to find flames consuming most of one building and threatening others. He too summoned a second alarm and soon had this fire under control.

While firefighters were hitting the hot spots at the Antoine and Brennan's fires, another blaze threatened an entire townhome complex in the Heights section of town, just northwest of downtown. Firefighters from as far away as the port, a 10-mile run, found the entire second floor and attic of a large town home fully engulfed. District 45 Chief Mike Stuckey, 10 miles away from his normal environs, had to deal with extremely low water pressure and very high winds blowing embers across the entire complex. He called for three additional engines to ensure this blaze's extinguishment.

Saturday, Sept. 13

Between midnight and 3 A.M. Saturday, fires were being reported one after the other across Houston. To compensate for the call volume, yet in line with policy, HFD dispatchers reduced the initial response for most building fires to two engines, a ladder company and a district chief. Responses were taking extremely long as apparatus operators had to contend with driving rain, near-hurricane-force winds, and total darkness with no street lights or traffic signals operating. Frequent flashes of an eerie blue light could be seen every few seconds as transformers across the city arced and another neighborhood went dark. Once at fires, firefighters then had to deal with low water pressure across the city.

As winds reached hurricane force, the HFD ceased emergency operations about 4 A.M. Saturday, although it had ceased operations earlier in certain southeastern districts closer to the coast. Only one district had to be relocated because of the storm, District 71 in far southeast Houston. Crews from its three stations, which all were in mandatory-evacuation zones, were relocated to stations closer into town. At 3:30 A.M., crews still at the Brennan's fire were ordered to shut down all equipment and take shelter in a parking garage across the street. All of Houston sat under cover as the storm passed by.

Shortly before 8 A.M., firefighters from Station 20, on Navigation Street near the port, went to check out a reported fire two blocks from the station. District 20 Chief Ricky Hoppas arrived and reported, "I have a grocery store fully involved." Weather conditions were beginning to improve, but were still intense and winds still very high, so Hoppas ordered just one engine to continue to the scene. The store, about 40 by 50 feet, had been destroyed and no exposure problems existed, so Engine 20 used its deck gun and went home.

Station 20 firefighters, though, did not stay at their station long as the storm caused the entire brick façade on the front of their quarters to fall off onto the apron that morning. Although no firefighters were injured, all four fire and EMS units had to be relocated to nearby stations until repairs could be made.

By Saturday afternoon, the storm and high water had subsided enough in the Houston-Galveston area for residents as well as emergency officials to survey damage. Few liked what they found, especially closer to Galveston. Most buildings in that city received major water damage and some roof damage.

HFD hurricane policy requires that every fire station survey its district after a storm. It is one of the best and fastest ways for city officials to get a handle on damage. All across the region, huge trees were uprooted, many landing across streets or cars and some landing square on top of houses. Power lines and poles were lying in the street across the area. Center Point initially reported that 2.1 million out of 2.3 million customer accounts in its service area were without power.

The Mission Control Building at NASA's Johnson Space Center received major roof damage as Ike's eye passed over the complex in far southeast Houston, forcing officials to relocate operations to an Austin hotel where they could continue to monitor the three astronauts manning the International Space Station. Several panels of the retractable roof on Reliant Stadium blew off.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said that Ike's monetary damage could rival that of some "legendary" hurricanes. In downtown Houston, hundreds of windows were blown out on high-rise buildings, the most noticeable being on the 75-story Morgan-Chase Tower, the city's tallest building, where a third of the windows on one side were gone.

In Galveston, devastation was everywhere. Of about a dozen structures that were built on pilings directly over the beach along the seawall, only one remained, the Flagship Hotel. The only problem for the hotel, though, was that its driveway, the only way in and out of its parking lot, had collapsed in the storm. The hotel was literally an island.

On Sunday morning, area residents awoke to find more water in the streets. Much of northwest Houston was flooded and White Oak Bayou was out of its banks. It was not from the hurricane, though. It was from heavy rains triggered by a passing cold front. Once the streets drained a second time, the weather in Houston turned pleasant for a week.

Houston police and other area law enforcement officers were dispatched to maintain order at the few gas stations that opened on Sunday. Before they were in place, numerous fights and even a murder occurred as irate customers jockeyed for position at the pumps. Houston Mayor Bill White ordered a curfew from 9 P.M. to 6 A.M. for the entire city of 2 million people for more than a week after the hurricane.

The Houston Ship Channel is a 50-mile-long waterway that begins a few miles east of downtown and ends where Galveston Bay opens into the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the country's largest petrochemical refineries are located along that "Fabulous Fifty Miles." In fact, the channel was built as a direct result of the 1900 hurricane. The port of Galveston was the state's busiest back then, but the hurricane destroyed it. Area leaders decided that a new port would be better located inland. Federal dollars were used to dredge Houston's Buffalo Bayou and, by 1914, the new ship channel was in operation in Houston. By design, then, Ike did relatively little damage to the refineries along the Houston Ship Channel.

Damage East of Houston

As heavily damaged as Galveston and parts of Houston were, there was also extensive damage to hundreds of smaller communities in the region. Pasadena and Baytown, heavy industrial cities east of Houston, were both hard hit by Ike. East of them, in the "Golden Triangle" formed by the cities of Beaumont, Orange and Port Arthur, near the Louisiana state line, damage was also massive.

The worst effects of storm surge are usually felt to the east of the eye of a storm that makes landfall on the Gulf coast. That held true in most of that "Triangle," especially in Orange and downtown Beaumont, but most especially in the small town of Bridge City, where virtually the entire town was flooded chest high.

Along the coast east of where the eye passed, the Bolivar Peninsula is a narrow, sandy stretch of land. Protected from hurricanes by nothing more than sand dunes, the peninsula has long been a popular beach retreat. Hundreds of beach houses, most built on pilings, line the village streets of Port Bolivar, Crystal Beach and Gilchrist. Today, all three villages are almost wiped clean.

As of this writing, Ike's official death toll in Texas stood at 35; but, ominously, more than 300 people were still listed as missing, the vast majority of whom were Galveston residents. Therefore, it is expected that the storm's final death toll will rise significantly. Following the storm, a tired and dejected Thomas was quoted as saying that her beloved city was in a "downward spiral," not fit for people to live in. Given Galveston's rich history and the indomitable spirit of its residents, that situation will likely be only temporary.


Fire officials in jurisdictions along the U.S. coastline from Mexico to Maine should learn as much as they can about hurricanes which have impacted the U.S. in recent years. Fire chiefs should dispatch their top planning officers to cities that have experienced major storms to learn about what went as expected and what did not.

Such officers should obtain copies of fire department hurricane policies in these cities and review them with field officers who have experienced actual working conditions in such storms. Understanding the catastrophic effects of storm surge is especially important. Evaluate the potential use for different types of watercraft and for high-axle vehicles like dump trucks before, during, and after hurricanes.

Mandatory evacuations will not be popular with many residents, especially those in areas that have not experienced a major hurricane for a generation or more. It is human nature to feel as though any problem can be met head-on, and most people do not like to be forced from their homes for something that might happen.

Just like in a fire, if a victim is trapped where it is unsafe or impractical for firefighters to go, then rescue attempts should not be made. When hurricane conditions make it unsafe and impractical for fire department units to continue operating, the fire chief should order responses to cease until conditions improve.

TOM McDONALD retired this year as a senior captain with the Houston, TX, Fire Department after a 26-year career. He still serves as a captain for the Southside Place, TX, Volunteer Fire Department.