Almost far worse
As I mentioned below, updates will be limited for the rest of the day. For full coverage of Ike's aftermath -- which, I hasten to say, is plenty destructive, notwithstanding all the "could have been worse" talk below -- I recommend the various blogs and local media outlets listed in my sidebar at right. Local sites like the Houston Chronicle staff blog and the CBS 11 and ABC 13 blogs have more and better coverage of the storm's impact than I would in any case, from my distant perch in East Tennessee.
Anyway... Dr. Jeff Masters says that, notwithstanding the miscalculations of the storm-surge computer models, Ike was almost far worse for Galveston:
Although Ike caused heavy damage by flooding Galveston with a 12-foot storm surge, the city escaped destruction thanks to its 15.6-foot sea wall (the wall was built 17 feet high, but has since subsided about 2 feet). The surge was able to flow into Galveston Bay and flood the city from behind, but the wall prevented a head-on battering by the surge from the ocean side. Galveston was fortunate that Ike hit the city head-on, rather than just to the south. Ike's highest storm surge occurred about 50 miles to the northeast of Galveston, over a lightly-populated stretch of coast. Galveston was also lucky that Ike did not have another 12-24 hours over water. In the 12 hours prior to landfall, Ike's central pressure dropped 6 mb, and the storm began to rapidly organize and form a new eyewall. If Ike had had another 12-24 hours to complete this process, it would have been a Category 4 hurricane with 135-145 mph winds that likely would have destroyed Galveston. The GFDL model was consistently advertising this possibility, and it wasn't far off the mark. It was not clear to me until late last night that Ike would not destroy Galveston and kill thousands of people. Other hurricane scientists I conversed with yesterday were of the same opinion.
These are the sorts of last-minute variables that cannot be predicted, with any precision or certainty, more than a few hours in advance -- which is further proof of why it's so ridiculous and irresponsible to cry "hype" every single time a prediction just barely goes amiss. Hurricane forecasting can truly be a game of inches.
Those people who refused to evacuate Galveston Island, and other vulnerable low-lying areas, are still fools. They're just fools who lucked out. Unfortunately, that probably means that some of them are now emboldened fools. But at least they're not dead fools, and thank God for that.