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Outage darkens Ala Moana

By Dan Nakaso and Gene Park

LAST UPDATED: 4:33 a.m. HST, Dec 23, 2010

This story has been corrected.

Ala Moana Center was crowded with thousands of Christmas shoppers when portions of the mall nearest Diamond Head went black for the third time in two days and triggered noxious odors and traffic gridlock around the Keeaumoku Street area.

Shortly after Macy's, Shirokiya, the Apple Store and an estimated 45 other Ala Moana Center businesses had power restored around 1 p.m. yesterday, a phalanx of security guards cleared the mall's parking lot between Macy's and the Apple Store for the Obama daughters.

Then, around 2:30 p.m., the power went out again, this time to an estimated 70 stores, including Macy's, Shirokiya and the Apple Store, and was expected to be out until midnight.

The blackout lasted more than a day and triggered a water shortage, trapped people in elevators, shuttered major shopping centers and forced thousands of tourists to arrive at a darkened Honolulu Airport.

Yesterday, Waipio resident Ligaya Hartman received messages through the social networking site Facebook that Ala Moana Center had lost power for the second time in as many days.

She braved the crowds anyway with her husband, Justin, and their 4-month-old son, Ezekiel.

Hartman was in a women's restroom in Macy's when the entire building suddenly went dark around 2:30 p.m.

Children started sobbing, and Macy's employees quickly turned on flashlights and ushered thousands of would-be shoppers out into the daylight.

"The first thing you heard was all these kids crying," Hartman said. "There were a lot of unhappy kids."

Hartman and her husband sat outside the darkened Apple Store thinking of where to spend their Christmas dollars.

"Now we're considering going to Kahala (Mall) or Pearlridge (Center)," she said.

William Chang of Manoa was looking over his Christmas-buying options in the Apple Store when the lights went out again.

"It just shut off," Chang said.

Several customers hastily began blaming Hawaiian Electric Co. and said retailers should file claims for lost sales during the final push before Christmas.

HECO spokesman Darren Pai said customers frequently file claims for spoiled food and damaged electronic equipment from power failures, by calling 543-4624.

"As in any other type of situation, if customers feel like they want to file a claim, they may do so," Pai said.

The three outages at Ala Moana were among the casualties of Sunday's storm that wreaked traffic havoc on Oahu and forced the cancellation of several events, including last night's free lawn viewing of the total lunar eclipse at the Bishop Museum.

Yesterday the damage was more muted, said Peter Hirai, deputy director of the city's Department of Emergency Management.

"It's been pretty quiet," Hirai said. "Our crews are doing cleanup, mostly."

A rare post-season tropical storm, Omeka, formed north of the main Hawaiian chain yesterday and appeared to be heading north. Omeka was generating sustained winds of 40 mph last night and traveling at about 20 mph about 930 miles west-northwest of Kauai.

Sunday's storm sent rain seeping into equipment at HECO's Makaloa substation around 7:30 a.m., causing a "flash over" and fire that knocked out electricity to nearby condos, the Neal Blaisdell Center and parts of Ala Moana Center, darkening an estimated 45 stores.

HECO crews diverted electricity from normal power lines to restore service to all customers by 11 a.m., HECO spokesman Peter Rosegg said. Ala Moana Center officials said all stores were reopened by noon Sunday.

HECO crews were still making repairs yesterday around 7:30 a.m. when a backup circuit that feeds power to the Blaisdell Center and about 45 stores at Ala Moana Center short-circuited, Pai said.

The darkened portions of Ala Moana Center were back online by 12:30 p.m. and all customers had service restored by 1 p.m., Pai said.

Then another underground circuit shorted out around 2:30 p.m., cutting off power to about 70 Ala Moana stores.

Hazardous material teams from the Honolulu Fire Department arrived at about 3 p.m. to investigate an odor that was disturbing shoppers around the Macy's and Shirokiya area.

Fire spokesman Capt. Terry Seelig said the backup generator the mall used had apparently leaked exhaust into the mall's ventilation system.

Investigators determined the odor came from exhaust fumes—mostly carbon monoxide—from the generator on the mauka side of the complex.

"They're not extremely heavy or high in concentration," Seelig said, "but it's enough of a concern that we don't want people exposed to it on a continuing or intermittent basis."

The mall was not evacuated. Rather, mauka areas of the mall were closed off to employees and the public throughout the afternoon and evening.

Engineers were working to shut down the guilty generator, shifting the power demand to other generators while trying to avoid a mall-wide blackout, Seelig said.

The outage and odor spurred shoppers to pour out of Ala Moana Center and into intersections that were without traffic signals at Kapiolani Boulevard and Pensacola Street and Kapiolani and Keeaumoku Street. The signal at Kapiolani and Cooke Street was also out.

HECO crews were working last night to repair underground cables that provide power to Ala Moana Center and the surrounding area.

"We know what a hardship it is to be without power," Pai said, "and we appreciate the patience of those who are affected by the outage and traffic in the area."

Star-Advertiser reporter Gordon Y.K. Pang contributed to this report.

 Correction: First Lady Michelle Obama was not at the mall during the power outage. An earlier version of this story and a story on page B4 of Tuesday's paper contained incorrect information.

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