AUSTIN -- Hurricane Ike could come ashore as the strongest storm to hit Texas in three years and have an extraordinary impact on the Gulf Coast, Gov. Rick Perry said Thursday as El Paso officials prepared to offer shelter to evacuees if the torrential rain and winds drive them west.
As hundreds of thousands fled coastal regions, Perry urged Texans in Ike's path to follow local leaders' evacuation instructions.
"It's a big storm," he said at a news conference. "I cannot overemphasize the danger that is facing us. It's going to do some substantial damage. It's going to knock out power. It's going to cause massive flooding."
In El Paso, Lt. Danny Medrano, assistant coordinator for El Paso City-County Emergency Management, said local emergency management officials have been asked to prepare to house evacuees, but none have yet been assigned to El Paso.
One of the halls at the Judson F. Williams Convention Center, he said, has been set up with cots to accommodate evacuees.
The city, he said, is also working with the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other organizations to prepare food and supplies.
"It's mainly planning efforts," Medrano said.
If evacuees were not assigned to El Paso within about 18 hours of the storm making landfall, Medrano said, the city probably would not receive any evacuees until hurricane relief efforts begin.
Once the storm gets closer to shore, he said, airplanes can't fly evacuees to El Paso because of high winds.
"As shelters and facilities start filling up, as other cities in North and Central Texas start realizing they cant help anymore, there's always the possibility we might get a call," Medrano said.
Mark Matthys, Red Cross El Paso executive director, said El Paso may be a bit too far away for evacuees, but nevertheless, staff and volunteers are on standby with their cell phones. "We're prepared to welcome whoever comes our way with a big hug, a hot meal and a comfortable place to sleep," Matthys said.
He encouraged anyone who could to donate to the Red Cross or other agencies that provide disaster aid.
One Red Cross volunteer from El Paso, Matthys said, had been sent to the Gulf Coast to help with hurricane relief work. More may go to the affected areas if they are not needed to help shelter evacuees in El Paso.
Earlier this week, 20 members of the El Paso 39th Civil Affairs Regiment of the Texas State Guard of West Texas were sent to Laredo to prepare for the storm.
Forecasters projected that Ike could blow ashore with winds more than 120 mph and cause a storm surge of up to 14 feet.
The National Hurricane Center issued hurricane warnings for nearly the entire Texas Gulf Coast and parts of Louisiana.
David Novlan, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Santa Teresa, said Ike was on path to make landfall between Houston and Corpus Christi.
Ike, he said, would probably have little or no effect on El Paso weather because winds out of the southwest were expected to push the storm east toward Arkansas and Louisiana.
Tropical storm Lowell off California would bring rain and possibly flash flooding to the region in the next couple of days, but,Novlan said, "Ike, for all practical purposes, is not going to be a player here."
Perry urged Texans in Ike's path to follow local authorities' evacuation orders.
The state, he said, has mobilized about 7,500 Texas military forces, 1,300 buses for people unable to evacuate on their own and 300 ambulances for people with special medical needs.
Fuel had been stockpiled, and plans were in place to prevent a colossal traffic jam like the one that befell Houston during Hurricane Rita in 2005 as coastal residents fled the storm.
"The hard work is in front of us," Perry said. "But we're as prepared as we can be."Brandi Grissom may be reached email@example.com;512-479-6606.