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Hurricane Ike rakes Texas coast, Houston

HOUSTON: Hurricane Ike powered across the densely populated Texas coast and through Houston on Saturday, bringing ferocious winds and a wall of water that flooded hundreds of miles of coastline and paralysed the fourth-largest US city.

But officials making early assessments said the storm may not have been the potential catastrophe that had been feared.

Ike, a massive hurricane that idled more than a fifth of U.S. oil production, came ashore at the barrier island city of Galveston as a strong Category 2 storm at 2:10 a.m. CDT (0710 GMT) with heavy rains and sustained 110 mph (175 kph) winds, the National Hurricane Center said. There were unconfirmed reports of “a few deaths” from the hurricane, said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. He cited “significant surges” — high seas pushed ashore by such storms — and damage in Texas and Louisiana.

“We have already heard some initial reports of a few deaths. Obviously one death is more than we want to hear about,” he told a news conference in Washington.

The Galveston and Houston ship channels were not hit as hard as expected.

“Fortunately the worst case scenario that was spoken about, that was projected in some areas did not occur,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry told a briefing in Austin, Texas, monitored on local television, although he said there had been “very heavy damage” to the power grid due to Ike.

The raging storm flooded Galveston and submerged a 17-foot (5-metre) sea wall built to protect the city after a 1900 hurricane killed at least 8,000 people. More than half the city’s 60,000 residents fled, but the fate of those who stayed to ride out the storm remained unclear.

Chertoff refused to say whether he expected the death toll to rise. “I don’t want to speculate,” Chertoff said.

“If someone stayed in an area predicted to be largely flooded, they put their lives at risk.”

Oil refineries along the western shore of Galveston Bay as well as NASA’s Johnson Space Center may have been spared the worst of the flooding.

But the storm’s huge span meant it flooded parts of Louisiana, prompting a flurry of overnight rescues far from its center, authorities said.

The storm could trigger $8 billion to $18 billion in insurance claims, according to an early insurance industry computer-modeled estimate of damage.

Emergency officials along the southeast Texas coast said they were “inundated” with calls from residents who tried to ride out the storm but now needed to be rescued.

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