HONOLULU – Iselle was supposed to weaken as it slowly trudged west across the Pacific. It didn’t — and now Hawaii is poised to take its first direct hurricane hit in 22 years. Tracking close behind it was Hurricane Julio, which strengthened early Thursday into a Category 2 storm.
As the two hurricanes churned toward the islands, a magnitude-4.5 earthquake hit Hawaii’s Big Island at about 6:30 a.m. local time, the U.S. Geological Survey reported. The temblor struck on the island’s north tip, about 7 miles (11 km) from Waimea. There were no immediate reports of damage.
State officials are assuring the islands are ready for the hurricanes and people should prepare but not panic.
Travelers got their first word of disrupted flights Thursday, when commuter airline Island Air said it was canceling some afternoon flights between the islands and shutting down all operations Friday.
Hurricane Iselle was expected to arrive on the Big Island on Thursday evening, bringing heavy rain, winds gusting up to 85 mph (135 kph) and flooding in some areas. Weather officials changed their outlook on the system Wednesday after seeing it get a little stronger, giving it enough oomph to stay a hurricane as it reaches landfall.
“What ended up happening is the storm has resurged just enough to keep its hurricane strength,” said Mike Cantin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Cantin said that means stronger winds of up to 70 mph (110 kph), though rainfall estimates of up to 8 inches (20 cm) in a short time frame remained unchanged.
“Not a major hurricane, but definitely enough to blow things around,” he said.
Iselle loomed about 400 miles (645 km) east of Hilo early Thursday, with sustained winds of 85 mph (135 kph) and traveling about 18 mph (30 kph). Cantin said the Big Island’s size and terrain would help break up the hurricane, weakening it into a tropical storm as it passes Maui and Oahu late Thursday and early Friday.
“The volcanoes on the Big Island will do a number on the system,” he said. Hurricane Julio, meanwhile, swirled closely behind with maximum winds whipping at 100 mph (160 kph).
The National Hurricane Center said it expected the storm to strengthen even more Thursday before gradually weakening by Thursday night. That weakening is expected to continue into the weekend.
Hawaii has been directly hit by hurricanes only three times since 1950, though the region has had 147 tropical cyclones over that time. The last time Hawaii was hit with a tropical storm or hurricane was in 1992, when Hurricane Iniki killed six people and destroyed more than 1,400 homes in Kauai, said meteorologist Eric Lau.
The two hurricanes have disrupted tourism, prompted flash flood warnings and led to school closures.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie, meanwhile, signed an emergency proclamation allowing officials to tap into a disaster fund set aside by the state legislature.
Hawaiian Airlines waived reservation change fees and fare differences for passengers who needed to alter travel plans Thursday and Friday because of the storms. Hawaiian Airlines spokeswoman Ann Botticelli said hundreds of inquires poured in from customers seeking to change their flights.
The storms are rare but not unexpected in years with a developing El Nino, a change in ocean temperature that affects weather around the world.