Ike bears down on busy Houston port

September 11, 2008 5:59:14 PM PDT
Hurricane Ike threatened to wreak havoc with international commerce along the Gulf Coast, as the port of Houston -- the nation's second busiest -- prepared Thursday to shut down cargo operations through the weekend, and airlines canceled flights to the region. TRACK IT: Location/forecast track | Satellite | Computer models | Forecast wind by zip code | Watches/warnings | Hurr. wind probabilities | TS wind probabilities | Tracking map | Get Ike text alerts | Gulf water temps | Tim Heller's blog | During the storm | Your report | Photos

The Port of Houston Authority said it relied on information from the Coast Guard in planning the shutdown.

The 25-mile-long Houston port receives consumer goods -- "anything that you could buy at Wal-Mart or Target," said port spokeswoman Lisa Whitlock -- plus automobiles, industrial equipment and other cargo from around the world and ships out vast amounts of petrochemicals and agricultural products.

Officials told cargo operators to prepare their vessels to leave the port if requested by the Coast Guard.

"It's safer for vessels to go out to sea to get away from turbulent waters," Whitlock said. "If they're stuck in port, they have nowhere to go and can bump against docks."

The port is expected to reopen Monday.

The approaching storm caused gasoline prices to surge on concerns that the storm could damage Texas refineries, or at the least halt production for several days.

October gasoline futures rose 8.7 cents to $2.75 a gallon on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

But along the Gulf Coast, wholesale prices -- what refineries charge retailers, who then mark up prices at the pump -- rose to nearly $5 a gallon, up from $3 to $3.30 a gallon on Wednesday, according to Tom Kloza, publisher of the Oil Price Information Service.

Even before making landfall, the storm interfered with oil refining and chemical operations clustered around Houston.

Dow Chemical Co. was shuttering its enormous Freeport facility that includes 75 plants producing 27 billion pounds of chemicals and chemical products per year. It was also closing down Union Carbide plants in Seadrift and Texas City, said Dow spokesman David Winder.

BASF, the world's largest chemical company, began closing one its two larger Texas plants and was deciding what to do with the other Thursday. The German-based company has 14 facilities along the Gulf Coast.

Shell Oil, the U.S. arm of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, said it began shutting down its Deer Park refinery and chemical operations and its joint venture Motiva refinery in Port Arthur was running at reduced rates.

LyondellBasell also began shutting down its Houston refinery and has stopped production at a dozen other Gulf Coast chemical and polymer facilities, spokesman David Harpole said.

Airlines curtailed service to Texas cities in the storm's path.

Continental Airlines Inc., Southwest Airlines Co. and AMR Corp.'s American Airlines canceled many flights to Houston, Corpus Christi and Harlingen, Texas.

Houston is Continental's largest hub, and the airline expected to stop outgoing flights early Friday afternoon there and possibly at other airports along the Gulf. Houston service will not resume until Sunday, the airline said.

Southwest operates 144 daily flights from Houston's Hobby Airport, one of its biggest operations. American expected to resume flights to Houston Sunday, a spokesman said.

Trains and automobiles were affected by the incoming storm as well.

Amtrak stopped service in parts of Texas because freight railroads, whose tracks it uses, began closing facilities around Houston. Amtrak said ticketed passengers slowed by the storm could get refunds.

Union Pacific Corp. halted all rail shipments around Houston except autos and intermodal containers. The railroad said employees were moving equipment out of the path of the storm, then evacuating the employees.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. closed its facility at the Houston port Thursday afternoon but kept its New Orleans hub open. The company expected shipments would be delayed two to three days.

German auto maker Volkswagen AG had about 5,000 new vehicles at the port of Houston and wanted to move them indoors. The problem: VW only has enough indoor parking for 100 cars. Spokesman Tom Wegehaupt said luxury Audi models would get the best spots.

As for the rest, workers were busy removing signs and any other nearby objects that could become fender-bending, windshield-smashing projectiles in high wind.

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