HOUSTON — As big as it was, Hurricane Ike wasn't as bad as forecasters feared.
For the 110 mph winds that smashed houses, flooded the Texas coast, blew out windows in Houston's skyscrapers and cut off power to 3 million people, there wasn't the single calamitous stroke that was predicted.
But the full extent of the damage — or even a rough sense of how many people might have died — was still unclear, in part because the nearly Texas-size storm made many roads impassable. And the possibility remains that Ike could become a disaster in slow motion, with thousands of victims trapped in their homes, waiting days to be rescued.
Rescuers in boats, helicopters and high-water trucks set out in a monumental effort Saturday to reach tens of thousands of people who ignored warnings of "certain death" if they didn't evacuate.
"We will be doing this probably for the next week or more. We hope it doesn't turn into a recovery," said Sheriff's Sgt. Dennis Marlow in Orange County, where more than 300 people were rescued. He said that was "a drop in the bucket" compared with the number still stranded.
By some estimates, more than 140,000 of the 1 million or so people who had been ordered to evacuate the coast as Ike drew near might have tried to tough it out. Many evidently realized the mistake too late, and pleaded with authorities in vain to save them overnight.
Ronnie Sharp, 65, and his terrier-mix, Princess, had to be rescued from his trailer in Orange County when water reached his knees. "I was getting too many snakes in the house, otherwise I would have stayed," Sharp said..
After the storm had passed, National Guardsmen, members of the Coast Guard, FEMA representatives, and state and local law enforcement authorities mobilized for what Gov. Rick Perry pronounced "the largest search-and-rescue operation in the history" of Texas.
Because Ike was so huge — some 500 miles across — hurricane winds pounded the coast for hours before and after the storm's center came ashore. Ike weakened to a tropical storm as it made its way inland but continued to pound the state with 60 mph winds and rain.
Officials were encouraged to learn that the storm surge topped out at 15 feet — far lower than the catastrophic 20- to 25-foot wall of water forecasters had feared.
Preliminary industry estimates put the damage at at least $8 billion, but injury to the nation's biggest complex of refineries and petrochemical plants appeared to be slight.
The storm, which killed more than 80 in the Caribbean before reaching the United States, was blamed for at least four deaths, two each in Texas and Louisiana. A woman was killed in her sleep when a tree fell on her home near Pinehurst, Texas. A 19-year-old man slipped off a jetty near Corpus Christi and was apparently washed away. The coroner in Terrebonne Parish, La., said a 16-year-old boy drowned in his house in Bayou Dularge when he fell through wooden pallets used as flooring and floodwaters rose. Alford also said a 57-year-old man died from a broken neck after he was blown over by wind.
Lisa Lee spent hours on the roof of her Bridge City, Texas, home with her husband, John; her brother William Robinson, 16; and their two dogs. They dove into 8-foot floodwaters and swam to safety after a sheriff's deputy arrived in a truck and drove as close to their home as he could. Their dogs paddled to safety behind them.
"It was like a dream," Robinson said while his sister shivered in a blanket at a shelter at a Baptist church.
A convoy of search-and-rescue teams from Texas and California drove into Galveston — where the storm came ashore at 3:10 a.m. EDT — after bulldozers cleared away mountains of debris. Interstate 45, the only road onto the island, was littered with overturned yachts, dead pelicans and debris from homes and docks.
Homes and other buildings in Galveston burned unattended during the height of Ike's fury; 17 collapsed because crews couldn't get to them to douse the flames. There was no water or electricity on the island, and the main hospital flew critically ill patients to other medical centers.
Sedonia Owen, 75, and her son, Lindy McKissick, stayed to shoo off looters. She was armed with a shotgun, watching floodwaters recede from her front porch. "My neighbors told me, 'You've got my permission. Anybody who goes into my house, you can shoot them,'" Owen said.
President Bush declared a major disaster in his home state of Texas and ordered immediate federal aid.
In downtown Houston, shattered glass rained down on the streets below the JPMorgan Chase Tower, the state's tallest building at 75 stories. Trees were uprooted in the streets, road signs mangled by wind.
"I think we're like at ground zero," said Mauricio Diaz, 36, as he walked along Texas Avenue across the street from the Chase building. Metal blinds from the tower dotted the street, as did office documents marked "highly confidential."