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    Debris littered a road in Keaukaha near Hilo as Iselle approached the Big Island late Thursday.

 [PHOTO GALLERY] Hurricane Iselle Part 2

 [PHOTO GALLERY] Hurricane Iselle Part 1

 [PHOTO GALLERY] Hawaii island preps for Hurricane Iselle

HILO » The power supply and the geothermal plant in Puna proved to be among the first casualties of Iselle as it bore down on the Big Island Thursday night.

More than 18,000 people were without power, a Hawai‘i Electric Light Co. spokeswoman said.

After spending nearly all day as a Category 1 hurricane, Iselle weakened into a tropical storm, packing 70 mph winds, by 11 p.m., when its center was about 50 miles south of Hilo, according to the Central Pacific Hurricane Center.

No injuries were reported, but Iselle knocked out power, forced roads to close and sent more than 800 people and pets into evacuation centers to ride out the first hurricane to touch island shores since Iniki devastated Kauai in 1992.

Iselle, a Category 1 hurricane, triggered heavy rain, thundershowers, winds and high surf that forced repair crews to head out into the night Thursday to restore power from Puna through Hilo.

"So much wind, so much rain," Mayor Billy Kenoi said Thursday night at the Hawaii County Civil Defense headquarters in Hilo.

Hawaii County Civil Defense issued an alert Thursday evening due to an uncontrolled release of hydrogen sulfide steam at the Puna Geothermal Venture plant in Pohoiki.

At about 8:15 p.m., civil defense officials said emergency crews were responding and plant operators are working on controlling the release and monitoring the emissions at the plant.

Residents in the area of Leilani Estates and Pohoiki Road were advised to remain indoors or to evacuate the area if they experienced any discomfort.

"We lost transmission lines, so the plant couldn’t deliver any of the electricity," PGV spokesman Mike Kaleikini said. He attributed the lines going down to high winds.

Kaleikini said the plant has to shut down whenever there is a loss of transmission because pressure builds up. The plant releases some steam to relieve the pressure buildup to protect its equipment, he said.

"We trained and prepared for this kind of bad weather," he said, adding the plant is responding appropriately. "We have taken everything seriously and we make sure our guys are safe. That translates into the community being safe."

Hawai‘i Electric Light Co. spokeswoman Rhea Lee confirmed at 9:30 p.m. Thursday that the transmission line that serves PGV was out.

Even though it is now a tropical storm, the remains of Iselle were expected to dump 5 to 8 inches of rain — and as much as 12 inches — on Maui, Oahu and Kauai on Friday.

A downgraded Iselle could still unleash "life-threatening flash floods as well as rock and mud slides," the Central Pacific Hurricane Center said. The center also warned of "very large" and "damaging waves" along east and south shores through Friday.

As Hawaii island residents were making last-minute preparations for Hurricane Iselle on Thursday, a magnitude 4.5 earthquake also struck the Wai­mea area of the island.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake hit at 6:24 a.m. and was centered 7 miles west-northwest of Wai­mea at a depth of nearly 10 miles.

There were no reports of damage or injuries.

The USGS’ "Did you feel it?" website for the quake generated scores of responses from across Hawaii island and two from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, about 165 miles away.

Just before noon Thursday, Hurricane Iselle began turning the sky above Hawaii island gray, and sheets of rain suddenly fell.

County officials closed all county parks and Kenoi urged people to stay inside and off increasingly dangerous roads.

"I’m most concerned about the perfect storm creating a (dangerous) situation," Kenoi said.

Winds up to 50 mph forced the closure of Wai­aku bridge in Kohala along with the entire 20-mile stretch of Highway 250, known as the Kohala Mountain Road. Among multiple reports of fallen trees, two trees fell across Highway 132 in Puna between Nana­wale Boulevard and Lava Tree Park.

Downed trees also temporarily blocked Route 11 from Keaau to the Volcano Highway near mile marker 19. Uma­uma Bridge along the Hama­kua Coast remains under construction and was closed Thursday as a precaution.

As of 9:10 p.m. Thursday, Hawai‘i Electric Light officials had reported 18,200 people were without power in lower and upper Puna, the Kohala mountain area to Volcano, Waiakea Uka and downtown Hilo.

Hawaiian Airlines canceled its Thursday evening interisland flights to and from Hilo, Kona and Maui.

Kenneth Ota and his sister, Violet Naru­yo­shi, lost their grandmother, Wakino Ota, and sister, Lynne Ota, in the 1960 tsunami that devastated Hilo.

So they headed to the Wai­­akea High School evacuation center in Hilo on Thursday with the family’s 21-pound cat, Miki; Ota’s wife, Hiromi; and Kenneth and Hiromi’s son, Brian, who carried two bags containing food, toilet paper and other necessities.

It was only the second time that a natural disaster led the Otas to evacuate, following last year’s threat from Hurricane Flossie.

"I lost my grandmother and sister in 1960," Kenneth Ota said while waiting to be assigned to a communal room at the high school. "Now I’m worried about my house."

The Otas and their cat were among 850 visitors and residents — and 22 pets — who found shelter at a dozen evacuation centers around Hawaii island Thursday when their hotels suddenly shut down or after they determined that their homes might not be sound enough to protect them from the hurricane.

Brandon Watts and his girlfriend, Brittany Bates, both of San Francisco, had been camping on Hawaii island when they decided it would be safer to check into the Hilo Seaside Hotel on Thursday morning.

They were greeted in the lobby by the hotel’s evacuation plan sitting on an easel that called for people to evacuate to Wai­akea High School in an emergency.

"We’re hoping this hotel will be safe enough," Watts said as he read the plan. "We did not plan for either a hurricane — or a hotel."

Watts and Bates were requesting a room that was centrally located in the hotel and away from Hilo Bay when employees suddenly began pounding on guests’ rooms before noon to order an evacuation of the bay-side hotel.

Jessie Hayden, Andree Lebrun and Clodah Cogley — college students from Dublin, Ireland — immediately began pumping the hotel’s vending machine of snacks because they had no food and no way to get to the evacuation center at Wai­­akea High School.

So they were going to rely on the hotel’s shuttle to get to safety.

"We were told to just get out of the room quick," Hayden said. "We chose the wrong time to come here."

Rochelle Kagawa, manager of the Hilo Seaside, said the hotel sits in a low-lying area of Hilo and evacuated its 130 rooms and 35 employees as a precaution.

"It’s just for the safety of everyone," she said.


Star-Advertiser reporter Leila Fujimori contributed to this report.

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