HILO >> Hawaii island residents can begin to get back to normal today after spending Wednesday hunkered down monitoring Tropical Storm Madeline, but they still face a threat in the weekend ahead from Hurricane Lester.
The National Weather Service discontinued its hurricane warning for the island Wednesday morning as the weakening Madeline approached the southern portion of the island. Even so, during early evening hours Madeline was packing sustained winds of 65 mph, with some higher gusts. The center of the storm was about 120 miles south of Hilo at 5 p.m.
County facilities and government offices are scheduled to open as usual this morning, and county officials planned to close any unused emergency shelters Wednesday night, but interim Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Ed Teixeira cautioned residents that Madeline is still potentially dangerous.
The National Weather Service cited evidence the storm was rapidly weakening and degrading Wednesday afternoon, but Madeline was still affecting the southern portions of Hawaii island last night, Teixeira said.
“I don’t think the worst is over. I’m not ready to say that,” he said. “We’ve had tree blow-down reports and heavy winds as well, and rain, rain, rain, rain, rain.”
Madeline was expected to pass the southern portion of the island at about 1 a.m., “but you can look at all of the rain effects — that can be flooding and mudslides that follow. That is our next worry.” Hawaii island also faced the risks associated with high surf up to about 25 feet on east-facing shores, which can cause coastal flooding.
The county encouraged people to “shelter in place” as much as possible Wednesday to minimize traffic on the roads. “We want to urge our residents to please kokua, take care of one another and stay safe, and let’s get through this thing as fast as we can, because from this we’ve got to then switch our attention to Lester and what Lester may do.”
Hurricane Lester, a Category 3 storm with 120 mph winds, entered the Central Pacific on Wednesday, and is on a path that could take it just north of the island chain, starting with the Big Island, late this week as a weak hurricane.
“We’ve got to get through tonight, we’ve got to see what we have to assess in the morning and look to see who needs help,” Teixeira said. “By Friday night or early Saturday morning, if the weather service is on track … then we’ll take on Lester and see what we need to do to prepare our communities for Lester.”
In Kapoho, the storm surge from Madeline combined with the afternoon high tide sent waves of water across the road around the Vacationland subdivision, temporarily blocking access to about 50 homes, said Jim Lehner, who is a member of the community neighborhood watch. Anyone wanting to get to those homes would need to wade through water or use a kayak, he said.
‘The whole waterfront is flooded by 4 or 5 feet of water anyway, and all the houses down there are inaccessible,” said Lehner, adding that most residents have left the area. “It’s not a real good thing.”
Most of the homes were built on stilts to protect them from flooding, but “there’s going to be damage such as fences and walls and things like that torn down because of water rushing through and carrying all the fences out again,” he said. The surge also dumped boulders in the roadway, Lehner said.
The National Weather Service reported wind gusts of up to 60 mph upslope from Kawaihae, and said that gusts in excess of 55 mph were reported near Waimea, Kawaihae, Waikoloa and South Point. Winds that strong are dangerous, and airborne debris can produce widespread damage, the weather service said.
Sustained winds of 35 to 50 mph, with gusts to 70 mph, were expected Wednesday night, with winds forecast to drop below 39 mph for all areas of the island by early this morning.
Hawaii County’s Department of Public Works officials closed Kamehameha Highway in Hilo because of flooding from rain runoff, and also closed nearby Bayfront Highway because of dangerously high surf conditions. In addition, as a precaution, the state Department of Transportation closed the Umauma Bridge under construction on the Hamakua Coast.
Hawaii Electric Light Co. had power outages throughout the day that cut service to about 5,500 customers because of downed lines and some tree branches that interfered with power lines. Service to all but about 100 of those customers was restored by 8 p.m., according to the utility.
An electrical transmission line between Pahala and Discovery Harbor in Kau was knocked out at about 3 p.m. and interrupted service to another 1,850 customers. A spokeswoman for HELCO said service had been restored to all but about 820 of those homes and businesses by about 5 p.m.
Some downtown Hilo businesses boarded up their windows, and about 175 residents around the island checked in at public emergency shelters that opened Tuesday night. The busiest shelters were at the neighborhood high schools in Pahoa and Keaau, where about 140 people had sought refuge by midafternoon.
With public schools and most state and county offices closed, traffic in East Hawaii was unusually light. The county bus system shut down Wednesday morning in anticipation of Madeline’s anticipated passage just south of Hawaii island.
Pahala resident Michael Worthington said shortly before 3 p.m. that the weather in his neighborhood had been windy for the previous four hours, but there had been little rain.
“A few gusts coming through, a little bit scary, but just get away from the tall trees,” he said. “I lost a tree limb in my neighbor’s yard, so I have to go clean that up.
“It’s getting a little bit darker right now, a little more overcast.”
Aaron Bryant, 29, decided he was better off taking shelter at the Hilo High School gymnasium Wednesday than trying to ride out the impacts from Madeline in his one-room cabin in Kalapana.
Bryant said he had never been through a hurricane warning before. When he put his girlfriend on a flight for a mainland trip Tuesday night, she advised him to “find somewhere safe.” He decided not to return to Puna with Madeline rapidly approaching, in part because his Kalapana cabin has screens but no windows.
“You just roll to the next moment; it’s kind of a lot of things at once,” Bryant said. He checked into the Hilo shelter with snacks to watch and wait.
Madeline also complicated Ed Miner’s plans to travel to Kahului on Thursday for a stock car race called “King of the Dirt” on Friday and Saturday night. As the hurricane approached, Miner worried he had chosen a bad time to fly interisland.
Miner’s travel plans had him leaving right after Madeline passed by, and returning Sunday as Lester was expected to reach the Big Island. Miner, 60, also worried about his pets and his rented home in Puna a few blocks from the ocean. He lived in Hawaiian Paradise Park in 2014 when Tropical Storm Iselle knocked over albizia trees and downed power lines across Puna, leaving him with no electricity for 10 days and no telephone service for a month.
“Just like everybody else, we’re on pins and needles, just knowing that anything’s possible,” he said Wednesday. “I guess we’ll find out tonight.”
The rain gauge at Miner’s house measured 2 inches of rainfall in the eight hours that ended at about 2 p.m. Despite the weather forecast, Miner said he decided to take his Maui trip because it was too expensive to change travel plans.
“I’ve got no choice,” he said “We’re all in.”