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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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.

Preparations

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.