By JUAN A. LOZANO
Associated Press Writer
HOUSTON (AP) -- Authorities in the Houston area and along the Southeast Texas Gulf Coast ordered hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate Thursday as Ike bore down with hurricane-force winds that stretched across more than 200 miles and could gain even more strength.
Forecasters expected the storm's center to reach land this weekend somewhere between Corpus Christi and Houston, potentially punishing Houston and nearby areas even if they are not hit directly. Hurricane winds stretched up to 115 miles in all directions from Ike's center early Thursday.
Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for tens of thousands of people in low-lying areas in Harris County, where Houston is located.
"They are areas subject to storm surge of up to 15 feet and it very important for people to understand we're not talking about gently rising water but a surge that could come into your home," said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the county's chief administrator.
Authorities hoping to avoid the traffic gridlock of three years ago, when Hurricane Rita threatened the area, urged people who don't live in eight specific zip codes in the low-lying areas and near Galveston Bay to remain at home.
"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."
Evacuation orders were also issued for all of Jefferson and Orange counties, an area home to more than 320,000 people between Houston and the Louisiana state line, and part of San Patricio County farther south.
Jefferson and Orange were two of three Southeast Texas counties that also had mandatory evacuations as Hurricane Gustav approached about two weeks ago. The region suffered major damage during Hurricane Rita in September 2005.
Four counties south and east of Houston had earlier announced mandatory or voluntary evacuations, and authorities began moving weak and chronically ill patients by bus to San Antonio, about 190 miles from Houston. About 1 million people live in the coastal counties between Corpus Christi and Galveston.
In Houston, gleaming skyscrapers, the nation's biggest refinery and NASA's Johnson Space Center lie in areas that could be vulnerable to wind and floodwaters if Ike crashes ashore as a major hurricane.
Some forecasts say Ike could strengthen to a fearsome Category 4 hurricane with winds of at least 131 mph over the Gulf of Mexico, and emergency officials warned it could drive a storm surge as high as 18 feet.
Ike was a Category 2 storm as of 8 a.m. Thursday with top sustained winds of near 100 mph, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said. It was over the Gulf's energizing warm waters about 575 miles east of Brownsville, Texas, and was moving west-northwest near 10 mph after ravaging homes in Cuba and killing dozens of people in the Caribbean.
If current projections of the storm's path hold up, the area surrounding Houston -- home to about 4 million people -- would be lashed by the eastern or "dirty" side of the storm, said meteorologist Jeff Masters, co-founder of San Francisco-based Weather Underground. This stronger side of the storm often packs heavy rains, walloping storm surge and tornadoes.
"I expect a lot of damage in Houston from this storm," said Masters, adding that Ike could cause a "huge storm surge" affecting at least 100 miles of the Texas coast.
Patrick Trahan, spokesman for the city of Houston, told The Associated Press early Thursday that "based on the current forecast (we) would expect to see some flooding based solely on the surge in some low-lying areas."
The oil and gas industry also watched the storm closely, fearing damage to the very heart of its operations.
Texas is home to 26 refineries that account for one-fourth of U.S. refining capacity, and most are clustered along the Gulf Coast in such places as Houston, Port Arthur and Corpus Christi. Exxon Mobil Corp.'s plant in Baytown, outside Houston, is the nation's largest refinery. Dow Chemical has a huge operation just north of Corpus Christi.
Refineries are built to withstand high winds, but flooding can disrupt operations and -- as happened in Louisiana after Hurricane Gustav -- power outages can shut down equipment for days or weeks. An extended shutdown could lead to higher gasoline prices.
Associated Press writers Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Michael Graczyk in Houston, John Porretto in Houston, Monica Rhor in Houston, Michelle Roberts in San Antonio and Christopher Sherman in Corpus Christi contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)