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Saturday, September 13

"Something wicked this way comes."

Geraldo Rivera, around 10:00 PM ET, standing in the driving rain and gathering winds in Galveston, Texas, trying to find words to encompass the enormity of the disaster bearing down on the United States of America, finding an almost Biblical phrase.

It's a little after 11:00 PM now. As I write these words the front of the eye wall of Hurricane Ike will start to pass over Galveston in about an hour. Fox News Channel's Geraldo, along with the few other reporters and TV crews left in Galveston, will soon take refuge in the San Luis hotel, built to take Category 5 winds.

But it's not the strength of the storm's winds that spells doom; it's the size of the storm that brings forth the word "apocalyptic" to describe it. Ike is huge, 600 miles wide, almost the size of Texas, and it's being felt all the way from Florida and Alabama and Louisiana to the tip of Texas, where a large portion of the nation's oil refineries and many chemical plants nestle in Galveston Bay.

The vastness of the storm is creating a tsunami effect, pushing a small ocean of water toward the fragile bay. As of 10:35 PM ET, the storm was 110 mph -- one mph below a Category 3. The storm eye is still tightening, and the only mercy is that it is gathering in strength so close to land that it can't make it to a Cat 4. Yet the storm will be striking at high tide, adding at least 10 feet in height to the wall of water. And the storm will strike in pitch darkness.

Most Galveston residents got out but ten thousand of them, not believing, not understanding the power of Ike until it was too late, elected to ignore the "mandatory" evacuation order -- which doesn't amount to more than jawboning by officials. Unlike Cuba's government, which can force evacuations ahead of a hurricane, the democratic U.S. government is powerless to save people who will not take themselves out a storm's projected path.

Why? Many holdouts who were interviewed said they'd heard such warnings before and they'd amounted to nothing. Hadn't New Orleans Ray Nagin predicted just days ago that Gustav would be the "mother of all storms?" But Nola had dodged the bullet -- after the majority of the residents had gone to all the trouble of evacuating.

Nola, half of which is like a bowl submerged below sea level, is still a death trap in the face of a direct hit from a major hurricane -- at least it will be until 2011, when reinforcements to the levees will be completed. But Galveston? The residents had weathered many direct hits before. The fear is, "not this time."

Yet all that the Texas authorities could do was tell the people who stayed behind in Galveston to write their social security number on their arms, in order to make identification of the bodies easier.

Will this be the last major hurricane to see "voluntary mandatory" evacuations in the United States? I think it's going to depend on the size of the death toll from Ike.

But beyond the loss of life and the loss of property -- projections earlier today were that 125,00 homes would be lost and Texas would sustain $81 billion in damages -- will be the potentially catastrophic effect on America if Ike stays on its beeline for Galveston's oil refineries in Galveston Bay.

The prediction, from a Fox News report early on Friday evening, is that the price of gasoline will double or even triple within a week if Ike takes out the refineries. Like falling dominos that will set in motion an economic disaster that ripples out from Galveston Bay to engulf the United States and then the world.

Yes of course the strategic oil reserve will be tapped but nothing of this kind happens in a neat, step-wise fashion. We are staring down the barrel of food shortages in the major cities as many truck fleets can't afford the spike in oil prices to haul long distances. That also means we are facing the specter of skyrocketing food prices.

We are looking at millions of Americans, living on the edge from paycheck to paycheck, who suddenly can't afford to put gas in their car for long commutes to work. And who are facing what could be below-normal temperatures this winter across a large swath of the country.

All that is the worst-case scenario, of course, but war-gaming it means that within two weeks the United States of America, the world's lone superpower nation, will be struggling in ways known to a third world country hit by a tsunami.

Realize that in Louisiana at least one levee, patched after Gustav, has broken and that 70,000 homes are still without electricity from Gustav's passage. And Ike is already causing floods and submerging homes in the low-lying parishes of the state, which are saturated from Gustav's rains and flooding.

None of the above speaks to the potential for environmental disaster when the chemical plants and refineries are hit in Galveston.

It's trite to say, 'Let us hope and pray that the worst doesn't happen.' Of course we hope and pray. But at this hour, we are contemplating a disaster that could be the greatest test of the American federal government's response capability since the attack on Pearl Harbor.

12:45 AM ET
Well, by now veteran storm chaser Geraldo and his trusty TV crew have surely hightailed it to the San Luis hotel, located on the highest ground of Galveston.

They would have headed for the second or third floors of the hotel and crowded there, along with Galveston police and other first responders, to wait for the worst of the storm to pass. The hotel staff believe those two floors are the best chance for survival -- hopefully high enough to weather the storm surge but low enough to escape winds that could shear off top floors.

I will keep vigil through the night and hope and pray for the best. God bless the people in southern Texas and everywhere along the Gulf Coast where the storm rages.

God bless America; God give us the strength to deal with the worst if it comes. God bless all the first responders, the very brave Coast Guard workers, and America's army of volunteer organizations.

And God bless the public and private sector leaders tasked with directing operations to put the pieces back together. God give them the wisdom of Solomon and the ability to improvise on a dime.
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