HONOLULU – It’s still too early to say with certainty, but Hawaii may have dodged a bullet as Hurricane Lane weakened Friday from what was a Category 5 to a tropical storm.
That doesn’t mean the island chain isn’t being hit with extremely high winds and rains that have caused flooding, road washouts and damage, but by Friday afternoon it appeared unlikely Hawaii would be struck by the full fury of a massive hurricane.
“By Saturday morning we’re looking in a lot better shape as far as even lower wind speeds and diminishing intensity,” said Jerome Saucier, a meteorologist at the Central Pacific Hurricane Center at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.
The National Weather Service said Friday night that Tropical Storm Lane was packing maximum sustained winds of close to 70 mph as it moved slowly west toward Oahu.
Officials caution that the danger is not over and residents and visitors still need to pay attention and stay safe, with high winds and extremely heavy rains still to come.
In Honolulu on Friday afternoon, lifeguards went out with megaphones and into the water with jet skis to tell tourists to get out of the water at Waikiki beach, where rising waves are making it too dangerous to swim or surf.
“We’ve beefed up truck patrols on the beach,” Mayor Kirk Caldwell said at an afternoon news conference in Honolulu.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty in this forecast,” warned Federal Emergency Management Administrator Brock Long, explaining that the rain would continue for the next two to three days. “We hope all citizens are heeding the warning that local officials are putting out.”
While the storm is weakening dramatically, "this is really big storm, there’s a lot of momentum. I don’t think it will be catastrophic but there will certainly be an impact,” said Jeff Weber, an atmospheric scientist at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a nonprofit consortium of more than 100 universities focusing on the atmospheric sciences.
The storm has been moving toward the islands from the east but is expected to make a turn to the west by evening Friday.
That westward turn comes because Lane will run into the trade winds that blow from the east to the west “and those trade winds are pushing it to the west,” and away from the islands, Saucier said.
“It’s on a good track right now, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem for the rest of the islands,” he said.
The closest it is projected to get to Honolulu will be just after midnight and into the early in the morning of Saturday, when Lane will be about 150 miles south-southwest of Hawaii's capitol.
“By Saturday morning we’re looking in a lot better shape as far as even lower wind speeds and diminishing intensity,” he said.
While not an easy ride, that intensity is comparable to the wallop some winter storms on Hawaii can pack, said Saucier.
This is good news for Honolulu and the island of Oahu, home to 69% of the state’s population. But the islands of Hawaii and Maui have had considerable wind and rain, which have caused flooding and damage.
Severe flooding hit some areas of the Big Island of Hawaii Thursday due to heavy rains making some roads impassable.
On Maui, heavy rains hit some areas, while an overnight brush fire forced some residents of the resort area of Lahaina to evacuate. The first burned about four acres, according to Maui county emergency alerts. No injuries were reported.
'A new experience'
Visitors to the islands were getting taking things in stride. At 4 p.m. Thursday, officials activated emergency siren systems on Oahu to provide an additional hurricane warning.
The eerie wail of the sirens blasted through Honolulu on a somewhat windy but still warm and inviting afternoon. The streets near Waikiki Beach were full of tourists busily taking pictures in front of high waves and the Weather Channel team that had set up on the beach in front of the Hilton Hawaii Village.
Five people, on vacation from Los Angeles, were rescued from a flooded house in Hilo on the east side of the island of Hawaii on Thursday. Two campers who were trapped overnight in the Waipio Valley had to be rescued by helicopter.
"It's a new experience; I never expected to live through a hurricane," said Kelly Scholten of Waupun, Wisconsin. She and her daughters had walked from the hotel to take photos of the increasingly high waves crashing into the seawall hear Waikiki Beach.
"Our hotel, the Ilikai, has been really good. We reserved three more nights in case our plane can't get out on Saturday. But they said if we could get out earlier they wouldn't charge us. And they've been keeping us really up to date with the storm. We even get messages about it slipped under our door," Scholten said.
A couple from Australia who'd planned their dream wedding in Hawaii had slightly different nuptials than planned – though they seemed undaunted by the experience Thursday night as they walked to the beach to take photos just after their hurried wedding.
"We definitely did not expect this. It was a bit touch and go," said Jayde Dixon, 25.
"Our ceremony was supposed to happen at 5 o'clock at a chapel across town. But then last night they rang us up and said they were moving the whole thing to 3 to be safe, and moving it to the Hilton where we're staying."
The couple, from Townsville, Australia, had 15 friends and family with them.
"Not sure when they'll get home. They were supposed to fly out tomorrow but now they're staying" because their flights have been cancelled, said Jamie Dixon, 28.
The newlyweds are staying in Hawaii for their honeymoon and were looking forward to it.
"As long as the wedding happened in Hawaii, the rest doesn't matter," Jamie said.