A collection of islands in the middle of an ocean, Hawaii might seem like a prime target for hurricanes.
Pacific cyclones hardly ever reach hurricane speed and intensity. For one thing, Hawaii is surrounded by deep, cool water, while hurricanes tend to develop in warmer water. A subtropical jet stream often located to the east of the islands can weaken storms with wind shear.
“Storms must have just the right conditions for a week or more to get close to Hawaii,” said Gary Barnes, a hurricane expert who is now retired from the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences.
That jet stream, though, doesn’t provide total protection. “It wiggles and can be too far north to protect Hawaii at times,” Barnes said.
That’s the situation Hawaii finds itself in now. Parts of the state were already drowned in 20 inches of rain before Lane’s predicted landfall, with outer bands bringing flooding and landslides.
Forecasters at the Central Pacific Hurricane Center expect the storm to make a sharp curve to the west between Friday and Saturday as it nears the islands of Oahu and Kauai.
Kauai bore the brunt of the last two major hurricanes to hit Hawaii. On November 24, 1982, Hurricane Iwa pounded Hawaii’s “Garden Island” with 110 mph winds.
A decade later, on September 11, 1992, the most powerful hurricane in Hawaii’s history, Hurricane Iniki, pummeled the island. Although there were only a handful of deaths, over 1,000 injuries, destruction of buildings and infrastructure and an estimated $1.8 billion in damage redefined how Kauai’s people view storms.
JoAnn Yukimura, mayor of Kauai County during Iniki, said Kauai is much better prepared today in terms of the ability to communicate, plan, and execute a carefully considered recovery.
After Iniki, Yukimura said that the island separated its debris with help from the Army Corps of Engineers and deployed the National Guard to prevent looting.
In the early 1990s, Yukimura recalled, Kauai's resilient residents got “used to living ‘in the woods,’” many having their own generators and cooking stoves.
She recalled how, at the time, FEMA workers traveling from Florida, which had been struck by Hurricane Andrew less than a month earlier, reported visiting homes in Florida where people brandished guns, warning them not to approach. But that wasn’t the case on Kauai, where neighbors had checked on one another and were helping each other.
“If one person had a generator, everybody was washing laundry at that house,” Yukimura recalled.
Kauai County’s current mayor, Bernard Carvalho, said leaders from the county’s two main islands Kauai and Niihau are “at the table every step of the way.”
Niihau, much smaller than Kauai, has a population of just over 100 people, all of whom are Native Hawaiian, living with very little contact outside the island. Carvalho added that equipment, supplies have been pre-positioned and a barge ready to be deployed if necessary. “We’re ready,” Carvalho said.
On Kauai’s south shore, at the National Tropical Botanical Garden staffers hurried to move about 1,500 of the rarest native Hawaiian plants into a fortified building, along with backup water supplies and staff to care from them.
The garden has a laboratory which houses nearly 6 million seeds inside a hurricane-hardened building with a redundant power supply to ensure frozen germplasm stays cold.
“We take our job really seriously in terms of protecting and perpetuating some of the rarest plants on earth,” said NTBG director and CEO Chipper Wichman.
Jerry Nishek, general manager of Kauai Nursery and Landscaping, said his staff was trimming large trees on its 100-acre property to avoid possible damage and laying large and fragile plants flat to avoid damage. With job sites around the island, loose materials need to be secured and move equipment out of flood zones, he added.
He and others still remember Iwa and Iniki and are taking preparation seriously. “If you’ve been through it, you know what the heck it’s about… the last couple hurricanes was a pretty intense experience,” Nishek said.
Barnes remembers Iniki vividly, including how he was unable to get on naval ships that left Pearl Harbor full of evacuees. “I felt abandoned,” he told The Daily Beast via email.
Meteorologists predicted that Hurricane Lane will slow down once it makes landfall. But officials and residents are still bracing for a violent aftermath. Trailing storms could thrash the island with flooding and destroy electricity and infrastructure.
And as last year’s hurricane in blacked-out Puerto Rico showed, flooding and storm surges can cause the most damage and prevent rescue workers from reaching those in need.
Hawaii’s natural topography and geographic diversity poses unique dangers for a hurricane.
The mountains’ atmosphere qualities bring more rail and the valleys overflow with runoff.
And Hawaii’s infrastructure wasn’t built with hurricanes in mind, according to Barnes, who described structures as “old, termite-compromised... that will fail with even [Category] 1 winds. Simply too expensive to build safe structures.”
And don’t forget that that Hawaii is home to Mount Kilauea, which began spewing hot lava months ago. While it’s incredibly unlikely that a hurricane would slam into the islands right when a volcano would be erupting, “more water might add to more explosions as water is [a] key ingredient for such,” Barnes said. A deluge of rain could pick up “volcano exhaust” and spread pollution downstream.
Hawaii’s isolation would hinder recovery.
“Hawaiians can’t run, can’t hide very well, and won’t be able to recover as fast,” Barnes said. “A major hurricane hit would devastate tourism for a year or more for the island that is hit.”
Drainages at the Limahuli Garden on Kauai’s north shore were destroyed during the “rain bomb,” and workers hurried this week to pour new concrete.
“The fact is, climate change is real and whether we accept it or not, we’re in for a rough ride, and so planning for and building organizations that are resilient and prepared for these kinds of storms is critical,” Wichman said. “We’ve got to plan for it.”