Residents in parts of coastal Texas will face "certain death" if they don't seek refuge from Hurricane Ike, which continued its path Thursday toward the U.S. Gulf Coast.
The sombre warning for the area around Galveston Bay was issued by the U.S. National Weather Service late Thursday — the same day just under a million people in Texas were ordered by authorities to leave their homes.
"Persons not heeding evacuation orders in single family one- or two-storey homes will face certain death. Many residences of average construction directly on the coast will be destroyed," the alert, posted on the weather service's website, read.
"Widespread and devastating personal property damage is likely elsewhere."
Forecasters expect the storm to make landfall late Friday somewhere between Corpus Christi and Houston, coastal cities about 340 kilometres apart. Because the storm is "very large," the weather will deteriorate long before the eye of the storm hits the coast, the U.S. National Hurricane Center reported.
"It's a big storm," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Thursday. "I cannot overemphasize the danger that is facing us.
"It's going to do some substantial damage. It's going to knock out power. It's going to cause massive flooding."
The storm, which ravaged homes in Cuba and killed more than 80 people in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean, could strengthen from a Category 2 to at least a Category 3 hurricane by the time it reaches Texas, the hurricane centre said. Winds could hit speeds of more than 179 kilometres per hour and storm surges could reach six metres.
A hurricane warning has been issued for the areas stretching from Baffin Bay, just west of Corpus Christi, all the way east to Morgan City, in Louisiana. The warning comes as Louisiana is still cleaning up from Hurricane Gustav, which killed 29 people in the state two weeks ago.
"Today would be a good time for folks to fuel up their cars [and] to make sure they have enough supplies," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said.
Oil refineries brace themselves
The Houston area could see the worst of Hurricane Ike.
The storm's "dirty side" — the eastern side, which usually brings the heaviest rains, surges and funnel clouds — is currently aiming for the city, which is home to NASA's Johnson Space Center, oil refineries and about four million people.
The city's port, which is the second largest in the United States, was scheduled to close operations on Thursday afternoon and not reopen until Monday.
Exxon Mobil, a Houston-area refinery considered the largest in the United States, was halting production as the storm approached. Valero Energy, ConocoPhillips and Marathon Oil were following suit.
As fears about supply levels grew, wholesale gasoline prices rose and analysts warned gas prices at the pump would follow suit.
Refineries are built to withstand high winds, but flooding and power outages (as seen during Hurricane Gustav) can shut down equipment.
Evacuations ordered in Galveston
Mandatory evacuation orders were issued Thursday for Galveston, a city of about 60,000 that was devastated by a hurricane more than 100 years ago. The 1900 storm killed more than 6,000 people and is still considered the deadliest natural disaster in the United States.
Diana Acevedo, who lives in the area, told the Associated Press that she did not have enough time to find an alternate place to stay. She said she would board up the windows of her family's trailer and hope for the best.
"I think it's going to get really bad," she said.
Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas advised those who choose to ignore the evacuation order to have supplies like food, water and medicine, and to secure their homes.
"We believe it is best for people to leave," she said.
Evacuation orders were also issued Thursday for the low-lying areas in Harris County, where Houston is located, as well as Jefferson and Orange counties, and parts of San Patricio County.
"They are areas subject to a storm surge of up to 15 feet [about five metres], and it is very important for people to understand we're not talking about gently rising water, but a surge that could come into your home," Harris County official Ed Emmett said.
Traffic woes as people flee
While authorities ordered some areas to be evacuated, people were ordered to stay put in other places, in an attempt to avoid the gridlock that came when people tried to flee Hurricane Rita in September 2005.
"We are still saying: Please shelter in place, or to use the Texas expression, hunker down," Emmett said.
"For the vast majority of people who live in our area, stay where you are. The winds will blow, and they'll howl and we'll get a lot of rain, but if you lose power and need to leave, you can do that later."
Traffic on Thursday afternoon was already building up on the roads leading out of Galveston County, while some gas stations reported running out of fuel.
In an update at 8 p.m. ET, the National Hurricane Center said the eye of the storm was about 760 kilometres east-southeast of Corpus Christi. The storm was moving west-northwest at about 19 km/h, with winds reaching maximum sustained speeds of 160 km/h, the hurricane centre reported. The storm was so large that its radius (from its eye to its outer edge) was 185 km long.
Before setting its sights on Texas, Ike cut across Cuba on Tuesday, destroying homes, killing at least four people and forcing 2.6 million from their homes.