Mandatory evacuations were ordered in some Texas Gulf Coast counties Wednesday ahead of Hurricane Ike, which is expected to hit the coast Saturday.
The storm could swell to a dangerous Category 4 but is currently a Category 2 hurricane, forecasters said.
As of 5 p.m. ET, Ike had top sustained winds near 100 mph and was about 720 miles (1,155 km) east of Brownsville, Texas, and about 370 miles (590 km) south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, the hurricane center said.
Hurricane-force winds extended out up to 90 miles (50 km) from the storm-s center, and tropical storm-force winds extended out up to 205 miles (335 km), forecasters reported.
About 15,000 residents were leaving Galveston-s Brazoria County Wednesday after a mandatory evacuation order was issued at 10 a.m. CT (11 a.m. ET) governing one ZIP code — 77541 — and residents throughout the county with special needs.
Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc issued a warning to residents of the city-s West End, citing forecasters- estimates that the area could get tides of 6 feet above normal if the storm arrives there. The West End is the area of Galveston most susceptible to flooding, LeBlanc said. iReport.com: Are you getting ready for Ike? Share photos, video
Other Brazoria residents were being allowed to remain as of 6 p.m. ET. Officials are expected to provide another update later Wednesday.
In Matagorda County, southwest of Galveston, officials ordered a mandatory evacuation for all areas except the cities of Bay City and Van Vleck.
The evacuation must be completed by at 6 p.m. (7 p.m. ET) Thursday. Galveston is likely to experience a high tidal surge, officials said, urging people living in low-lying areas or mobile homes to get out soon.
“One of the things that the public has to understand if they decide to stay, there will be a period of time during this storm when they will absolutely be on their own,” Brazoria County Sheriff Charles Wagner said.
“There will be no medical services; there will be no fire department; there will be no law enforcement, groceries, gasoline, drugs, electricity.”
The center issued a tropical storm warning from the Mississippi River-s mouth to Cameron, Louisiana, and a hurricane watch from Cameron to Port Mansfield, Texas, about 60 miles south of Brownsville. Tropical storm warnings mean winds of 39 to 73 mph (63 to 118 kmh) are expected within a day, and a hurricane watch means winds of 74 and higher are expected within 36 hours.
“Hurricane Ike is now in the Gulf of Mexico and making its approach toward our coast,” Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement. “The next few days will be crucial for residents to follow the direction of local leaders and to take the necessary steps to protect themselves and their families.”
Perry put 7,500 National Guard members on standby this week, his office said, and issued a disaster declaration for 88 counties.
“If anything, this 2008 hurricane season has demonstrated that we have to be prepared at all times. Hurricanes do not occur at convenient times or with sufficiently timed intervals,” he said.
About 1,350 buses, several ambulances and paramedic buses were available to support evacuations. The vehicles were positioned near Houston, Matagorda County, Nueces County and Victoria County, the governor-s office said.
President Bush declared an emergency in the state, making federal funds available for the state to prepare for the storm.
Corpus Christi officials also began the evacuation process for residents with special needs, supplying buses to transport them out of town.
Perhaps more important to many in Texas, dozens of high school football games in cities and towns along the coast were rescheduled from Friday to Thursday night to avoid playing in the storm, CNN affiliate KGBT-TV reported.
The National Hurricane Center indicated that Ike would probably come ashore Saturday along the Texas coast between Galveston and Brownsville as a major hurricane with winds up to 130 mph. But forecasters stressed the unpredictability of the storm, which could change course at the last minute. Track the storm »
“It-s very frustrating for all of us,” Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said. “We-re on alert, and we will continue to monitor this storm. I wish we could be clearer about where it-s going.”
Thomas warned residents to stock up on nonperishable items, including pet food and diapers, and to prepare for going without electricity.
Ike-s center left western Cuba on Tuesday afternoon, having hit it with 75-mph winds, high surf and torrential rains in its second Cuban landfall in three days, the hurricane center said.
Evacuations appeared to have saved lives on the island nation. Four deaths were reported from the storm, according to the Cuban government. The Cuban Civil Defense brought buses or trucks to take people to shelters.
Cuban state television reported that two people were killed when they tried to remove an antenna, The Associated Press said. One man died when a tree crashed into his home, and a woman died when her home-s roof collapsed, according to the AP.
The storm shredded hundreds of homes and caused some dilapidated buildings in Havana-s older areas to collapse, the AP reported.
The United States, which provided $100,000 in emergency aid to communist-run Cuba through private aid agencies after Hurricane Gustav hit the island August 30, said Tuesday that it was considering additional emergency aid for Cuba because of Ike.
Also, the United States said it will lift restrictions on cash and humanitarian assistance sent to Cuba for the next 90 days. The move will allow nongovernmental organizations to provide assistance and cash donations.
As the storm spun away from Cuba, it spawned a tornado in Key Largo, Florida, that damaged cars, homes, boats and trees, CNN affiliate WPLG-TV in Miami reported.
The storm pounded Grand Turk Island in the Turks and Caicos chain, putting a strain on the British territory-s tourism industry.
Flooding and rains from Ike-s outer bands have been blamed for 70 deaths in Haiti.
That country-s death toll from four recent major storms — Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike — was 341, said Abel Nazaire, deputy head of Haiti-s Civil Protection Service
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