Meteorologists, hard-bitten science bloggers, and sober-minded weather watchers are using some unusual vocabulary to talk about Hurricane Ike. For instance, here’s Dr. Jeff Masters, cofounder of Weather Underground (who used to fly with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters), with some bolding added for emphasis:

Hurricane Ike is closing in on Texas, and stands poised to become one of the most damaging hurricanes of all time. Despite Ike’s rated Category 2 strength, the hurricane is much larger and more powerful than Category 5 Katrina or Category 5 Rita. The storm surge from Ike could rival Katrina’s, inundating a 200-mile stretch of coast from Galveston to Cameron, Louisiana with waters over 15 feet high. This massive storm surge is due to the exceptional size of Ike. According to the latest wind field estimate (Figure 1), the diameter of Ike’s tropical storm and hurricane force winds are 550 and 240 miles, respectively. For comparison, Katrina numbers at landfall were 440 and 210 miles, respectively. As I discussed in yesterday’s blog entry, a good measure of the storm surge potential is Integrated Kinetic Energy (IKE). Ike continues to grow larger and has intensified slightly since yesterday, and the hurricane’s Integrated Kinetic Energy has increased from 134 to 149 Terajoules. This is 30% higher than Katrina’s total energy at landfall. All this extra energy has gone into piling up a vast storm surge that will probably be higher than anything in recorded history along the Texas coast.

Storm surge heights of 20-25 feet are possible from Galveston northwards to the Louisiana border. . .

Then consider this bit of context from Matthew Schwartz of the Houston Chronicle:

The Army Corps of Engineers is closely monitoring hurricane protection structures along the Texas coastal areas in Port Arthur, Texas City, and Freeport in light of the large storm surges being predicted by meteorologists. . .

Of particular note is the hurricane protection structure in Port Arthur. The structure was completed in 1984 to provide protection to the urbanized and industrial areas of Port Arthur, to include the City of Port Arthur and the associated petrochemical complex from a hurricane surge up to 14 feet. . .

The other hurricane protection structures are located in Texas City and Freeport. The Texas City structure was completed in 1987 for protection against a storm surge of up to 15 feet, and the Freeport structure was completed in 1980 to protect against a storm surge of up to 14 feet. . .

They may be about to find out what happens when a 20-25 foot storm surge goes past protection structures designed for a 15 foot surge. And did you notice what they are protecting?


Back to Jeff Masters:

The situation is grim for Port Arthur, Texas, on the Louisiana border. The expected storm surge of 15-20 feet will overtop the city’s seawall by six feet, resulting in flooding of the city and a number of major oil refineries. Expect a significant tightening of gas supplies in coming months, due to extensive damage to the oil refineries in the Houston and Port Arthur area.

Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States, home to a sizable portion of the US oil refining capacity, and it has a massive hurricane bearing down on it, pushing ahead of itself one of the largest, most powerful storm surges in history. Refineries are shutting down, trying to keep the damage to a minimum. Houston’s protection is Galveston Island, which seems to be Ike’s target at this point. And if any place in the United States ought to know about hurricanes and storm surges, it’s Galveston.

Earlier this morning, Eric Berger (author of the Houston Chronicle’s "SciGuy" blog) tried to explain what to expect for folks living in different parts of the area. Most chilling was this:

If you live east of San Luis Pass and less than 20 feet above sea level, God help you at this point if you have not evacuated.

That about sums it up. Ike is huge, and its power is not in the speed of its winds but the sheer size of the storm itself that is pushing an enormous volume of water ahead of it.

Whether you pray in times like these, offer good thoughts, or do something else, please keep the people of the Gulf Coast in general and Houston/Galveston in particular in your hearts tonight. They’re going to need it.

And by Sunday, I’m afraid they will need a whole lot more.