Hawaii bracing as hurricane nears the islands

JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER AUDREY McAVOY Associated Press Published:

HONOLULU (AP) -- Barely holding on to hurricane strength, Iselle's outer edges brought rain and wind to Hawaii on Thursday as it approached landfall, poised to become the first hurricane or tropical storm to hit the island chain in 22 years and whose path another hurricane closely followed.

Even before its eye touched land, Hurricane Iselle knocked out power on parts of the Big Island, one of the least populated islands. Iselle was expected to pass over the Big Island, known for coffee fields, volcanoes and black sand beaches, on Thursday night and then send rain and high winds to the rest of the state on Friday. The storm's predicted track had it skirting just south of the other islands.

"Whoop, there goes the power," 29-year-old Andrew Fujimura of Puna said as he spoke with an Associated Press reporter Thursday night. "It's fine. We'll just go to bed early tonight, I guess."

Fujimura was trading videos with a friend in Maui to help the friend see what weather conditions to expect. The videos show loud winds blowing through palm trees, white foamy waves chopping high onto shoreline shrubs and rocks -- even a surfer riding rolling waves with an overcast sky on the Big Island's eastern shore.

Waves were breaking about 15 feet to 20 feet, Fujimura said.

"I can't say I'm too worried," he said. "Worst-case scenario, the power may go out a day or two. But we're prepared for that kind of stuff out here."

Emergency officials on the Big Island sent a warning to nearby residents after a geothermal plant accidentally released an unknown amount of steam containing hydrogen sulfide, a smelly, poisonous compound. Crews were working to control the release and monitor the emissions, while nearby residents were urged to evacuate if they experience discomfort, Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi's office said. It was not clear whether the release was directly related to the storm.

Forecasters were analyzing storm data before making possible changes to its categorization, National Weather Service meteorologist Eric Lau said.

"But we're not really too concerned about the track or the intensity of the system," Lau said. "We're primarily urging residents to still take proper precautions to prepare themselves to keep everyone safe."

Hundreds of people flowed into emergency shelters set up at high schools on the Big Island, one of which lost power. Crews worked to restore electricity to the shelter in Pahoa with at least 140 people.

Power also was lost Thursday evening in two communities on the Big Island: Waimea, a town of about 9,200 people near the island's north shore, and Puna, a district scattered with residents south of Hilo, Hawaii County Civil Defense officials said.

Mayor Billy Kenoi told KHON-TV that no major injuries or damage from the first bits of wind and rain have been reported. But heavy rains led authorities on the Big Island to issue a flood advisory.

On Maui, power to a water treatment plant went out, prompting county officials to ask Kula residents in the middle of the island to conserve water.

People prepared for the storm by making last-minute trips to the store and boarding up windows at their homes.

"It's getting more windy, and it's raining pretty good," said Denise Laitinen on the Big Island. "But I'm ready for it. Everything outside is secured, and I've boarded up the picture windows. I feel good about being prepared for anything these storms bring us."

Meanwhile, Hurricane Julio, strengthened into a Category 3 storm and followed Iselle's path with sustained maximum winds of 115 mph. It was about 1,000 miles behind Iselle and projected to head just north of the islands sometime early Sunday morning.

Hawaii has been directly hit by hurricanes only three times since 1950. The last time Hawaii was hit with a hurricane or tropical storm was in 1992, when Hurricane Iniki killed six people and destroyed more than 1,400 homes in Kauai, Lau said.

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie said the state is prepared for the back-to-back storms, noting the National Guard is at the ready and state and local governments were closing offices, schools and transit services across Hawaii.

"What we're asking the people to do now is pay attention, stay focused and listen to the directions," he said. "Hunker down with your family and friends and ride out the storm."

Abercrombie said President Barack Obama has been briefed on Hurricane Iselle, according to the governor's official Twitter account.

State Attorney General David Louie promised that Saturday's primary elections, including congressional and gubernatorial races, will go forward as planned.

As residents prepared for the possible one-two punch of storms, a 4.5-magnitude earthquake struck the Big Island but didn't cause major damage. There were no reports of injuries.

Kelsey Walker said the quake felt like a "little jolt" but didn't knock things off shelves at the Waimea grocery store where he works.

"We have a hurricane. Now we have this on top of it. What else?" Walker mused.

Travelers faced disrupted plans when at least 30 flights were canceled Thursday from several airlines, including Delta, United, Air China and WestJet, the Hawaii Tourism Authority said.

American Airlines and US Airways canceled flights in and out of the Big Island and Maui after 6 p.m. Thursday through noon Friday. Commuter airline Island Air canceled some afternoon flights and shut down all operations Friday.

Hawaiian Airlines canceled some interisland flights for Thursday evening and moved its Maui-Los Angeles flight up by nearly five hours. The airline waived reservation change fees and fare differences for passengers who needed to alter their plans Thursday and Friday.

After high winds hit Maui, California couple Rudy Cruz and Ashley Dochnahl left the island earlier than planned, getting to Oahu but failing to secure a flight back home. "We were trying to beat it, but we now will have to ride it out," Cruz said.

The storms are rare but not unexpected in years with a developing El Nino, a change in ocean temperature that affects weather around the world.

Ahead of this year's hurricane season, weather officials warned that the wide swath of the Pacific Ocean that includes Hawaii could see four to seven tropical storms this year.

___

Associated Press writers Oskar Garcia, Cathy Bussewitz and Manuel Valdes in Honolulu; Karin Stanton in Kailua-Kona; Doug Esser in Seattle; Dan Joling in Anchorage, Alaska; and Brian Skoloff in Phoenix contributed to this report.

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.