Ike will likely make landfall Friday night into Saturday morning, according to the National Hurricane Center. At 2 p.m. ET Friday, the center said that the Category 2 storm was centered 165 miles southeast of Galveston and moving west-northwest at 12 mph. Some forecasters said it could strengthen into a Category 3 storm with winds over 111 mph or even a Category 4 with winds over 131 mph.
Friday afternoon in Galveston, waves as tall as 15 feet were already crashing over the city's seawall, according to the Associated Press.
Authorities told residents in Galveston and in low-lying counties outside Houston to evacuate ahead of what may be the area's worst storm in 50 years.
"Leave now," said Ed Emmet, chief commissioner for Harris County, according to Reuters. "The storm surge is stronger and it's important that people understand this really is a life or death matter."
Officials fear that a storm surge between 20 and 25 feet could inundate Galveston, putting the entire city underwater. Galveston was the scene of the country's highest-death-toll natural disaster more than a century ago, when a 1900 hurricane killed more than 6,000 people.
Some Galveston residents who initially planned to stay were persuaded to leave Friday.
Tony Munoz, 33, was watching the waves crash over the seawall.
"We started seeing water come up on the streets, then we saw this," he told AP. "We just loaded up everything, got the pets, we're leaving. I've been through storms before, but this is different."
But a few were determined to ride out the storm.
"If the island is going to disappear it has to be a tsunami," Emory Sallie, 44, told the AP. "If it ain't your time, you ain't going anywhere."
Further inland, officials aimed to avoid the traffic tie-ups that snarled evacuation attempts three years ago before Hurricane Rita. They told residents of Houston, which sits 50 feet above sea level, to "shelter in place" in their homes.
"We'll just turn it over to God and let whatever happen, happen," Tresa Biggerstaff told AP, as she boarded up her pastry shop in the Houston Heights area.
Meanwhile, energy companies evacuated oil and gas production facilities and rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, less than two weeks after reopening them after Hurricane Gustav. The wholesale price of gasoline rose to more than $4 per gallon along the Gulf Coast.
As of midday Friday the U.S. Coast Guard was attempting a dangerous rescue of 22 crew members aboard a 584-foot freighter that broke down in the path of the storm, about 90 miles off the Texas coast, according to AP. Earlier in the day the Coast Guard had deemed the rescue too dangerous, but by mid-day Petty Officer Tom Atkeson told AP that a rescue helicopter was on its way.