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Hawaii braces for a rare encounter with a hurricane

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    A man stands along the beach as waves crash on shore before Hurricane Lane today in Honolulu. A powerful hurricane unleashed torrents of rain and landslides today that blocked roads on the rural Big Island but didn’t scare tourists away from surfing and swimming at popular beaches.

First came an errant alert that a ballistic missile was headed for Hawaii. Then 50 inches of rain were recorded in one day on Kauai, flooding parts of the island. Next a slow-motion eruption of the Kilauea volcano ravaged parts of the Big Island. Now the state is facing its latest potential calamity: A Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 125 mph.

“I boarded up my chicken coop and boarded up my house and prepared for the oncoming, next disaster,” said Stefani Hinkle, a farmer and performer who lives near a major fissure in the volcanic eruption. Hinkle spent Wednesday night quaking in bed as the outer bands of Hurricane Lane blew wind and rain sideways into her house.

“I had several dreams,” she said, “about the ocean god joining the fire goddess.”

Forecasts predict that the powerful hurricane could come dangerously close to the islands of Oahu, Molokai and Maui on Friday and Saturday, and the National Weather Service warned of “significant and life-threatening flash flooding and landslides” even if the storm skirts the islands.

Like Hinkle, homeowners across the state boarded up windows and stocked up as the hurricane approached, emptying stores of essentials like water and batteries. The governor, David Ige, urged residents to have enough food, water and other essentials to last for 14 days.

Lane is only the second hurricane to reach Category 5 strength, with winds above 155 mph, and pass within 350 miles and to the south of the Big Island since the Weather Service started keeping records. The other was John, in August of 1994; that storm continued on to the westward side of the islands and had “very little impact.”

A hurricane of this magnitude so close to Hawaii is “a very rare event,” said Alex Gibbs of the National Weather Service’s Central Pacific Hurricane Center in Honolulu.

In 1992, another storm, Hurricane Iniki, veered into Kauai as a Category 4 storm. It killed six people and caused about $3 billion in damage, leveling more than 1,400 homes and damaging about 14,000. Power and phone lines were out for weeks, and crops like banana and papaya were destroyed.

Direct hits on Hawaii are unusual, in part because the islands are small in comparison to the rest of the Pacific Ocean. Other conditions that make Hawaii an infrequent target of hurricanes include the cooler water temperatures near the islands and wind shear, which weakens storms.

Forecasters say that both factors are expected to influence Hurricane Lane in the coming hours. The storm’s exact track is uncertain, and it is was expected to weaken slightly. Still, the storm promises to bring heavy damage to the main Hawaiian islands as its winds surge through steep mountain slopes and tall buildings. The fact that Lane is moving slowly means it is likely to dump large amounts of rain.

Today, the outer bands of the storm lashed the Big Island, swelling creeks and rivers and triggering road-blocking landslides. Nearly 20 inches of rain had been recorded at one observation station. Officials said that hundreds of people on the island of Oahu had already moved to shelters by afternoon, and a warning siren was sounded in Honolulu.

“Hurricane Lane is still a dangerous and powerful storm,” Ige warned at a news conference today.

Although climate change does not cause hurricanes, climate experts said that it can make storms like Lane more damaging.

Kristen Corbosiero, an assistant professor with University at Albany’s atmospheric and environmental sciences department, said that scientific research shows that climate change has led to rising sea levels, which can worsen storm surge. In addition, she said, warmer temperatures put more moisture in the atmosphere, producing greater rainfall, which in a place like Hawaii means greater flooding and mudslides.

Recent research also suggests that climate change has led to storms moving more slowly, she said. “Those all spell greater damage from hurricanes.”

Lane was unwelcome news for some of the estimated 300,000 tourists on the islands this week. Stephanie and Marc Johnston of Melbourne, Australia, cut their honeymoon short to leave Wednesday, before the rains began. But Vicky Maywald, a Texan who was vacationing with five family members, was sticking to her Oahu vacation.

“We’re from Texas,” she said, “so we’ve been through a few hurricanes.”

For many of the islands’ residents, it was hard to believe that a hurricane would make a direct hit when they have been spared so many times in the past. Still, some people prepared with a sense of urgency.

“I’m normally not a person that makes sure my gas tanks are full and everything is all settled and organized, but I totally organized and brought everything in, and my chickens are in the garage,” said Heather Nelson, 39, who works in event production and lives in Volcano, Hawaii.

Dana Asis, 43, a Realtor in the north-central part of the Big Island, said there had been a run on the feed store in her area.

“Since it’s unusual for us, I feel it’s prudent for us to be a little bit more prepared and aware,” Asis said.

Others tried to take the hurricane in stride. On Oahu, on a ridge overlooking the enormous volcanic cone known as Diamond Head, Bob Larsen brought in the outdoor furniture and made pancakes this morning.

The dire storm warnings made for a jarring juxtaposition with the stunning environs, but Larsen and his partner, Irna Hirano, 70, a retired schoolteacher, hoped their solar power system would provide enough energy to keep the lights and refrigerator running through the storm.

In Honolulu, caseworkers and outreach workers for the homeless were trying to warn their clients the storm could be dangerous. There are some 7,000 or 8,000 homeless people on the island of Oahu, said Kimo Carvalho with the Institute for Human Services, a nonprofit group. The organization was making phone calls and combing the streets, trying to get people into shelters.

“There are actually a lot of homeless clients right now that are saying, ‘We’re going to ride out the storm,’” Carvalho said. “We’re trying to convince them to take it seriously.”

Irene Tanabe, 67, an Episcopal rector in Honolulu, said her parishioners were facing the storm impassively, just as they had the missile: “Nothing we can do about it,” she said.

And back on the Big Island, in Kalapana, Suzette Ridolfi, a teacher, was grateful that the hurricane meant a couple of extra days off school, because it would allow her to clean up some of the particles still left in her home by the volcanic eruption.

“The volcano was way more scary,” Ridolfi said. “Rain, we can take.”

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