‘Don’t let your guard down,’ federal officials tell Hawaii

HONOLULU (AP) – Federal officials said Saturday that torrential rains are now the biggest threat to Hawaii after a once-powerful hurricane that threatened the island state was downgraded to a tropical storm, and they urged people to continue to take the storm seriously.

“Today’s message to the citizens of Hawaii is don’t let your guard down,” Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said during a telephone briefing in Washington.

“Tropical storms can be very dangerous and Hawaii is not in the clear from Tropical Storm Lane at this point,” he said.

Several more days of rain are in the forecast, Long said. He said the biggest effects so far have been on transportation, due to mudslides and other damage to the transportation infrastructure, mostly in Hawaii County on the Big Island.

“The rainfall event is not over,” Long said. “Torrential rains will be the largest threat that we see for the next 48 hours.”

The agency isn’t letting its guard down, either, Long said, adding that officials continue to “communicate very closely” with counterparts at the state and local levels.

“We are standing by to continue our support for the response and eventually the recovery efforts that are taking place,” he said.

Lane roared toward the island chain early this past week as a Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. That meant it was likely to cause catastrophic damage with winds 157 mph or above.

But upper-level winds known as shear swiftly tore the storm apart. By late Friday, the National Weather Service said Lane had maximum sustained winds of 70 mph as it slowly twisted west about 120 miles south of Honolulu.

The outer bands of the hurricane dumped as much as 3 feet of rain in 48 hours on the mostly rural Big Island. The main town of Hilo, population 43,000, was flooded Friday with waist-high water as landslides shut down roads.

Officials with the Department of Land and Natural Resources transferred about 2,000 rare Hawaiian snails from a mountain marsh to offices in downtown Honolulu on Oahu, the state’s most populated island. Some of the snails are the last of their kind.

As flooding hit the Big Island, brush fires broke out in areas of Maui and Oahu susceptible to flames.

Some residents in a shelter on Maui had to flee when a fire got too close, and another fire forced people from their homes.

A man posted a video on Instagram showing flames several stories high starting to envelop parked cars. Josh Galinato said he was trying to sleep when he smelled smoke in his apartment in the tourist town of Lahaina.

“I opened up my front door, and I just saw the fire spreading and coming downhill,” Galinato said. He and neighbors honked horns to alert others.

In Waikiki, the man-made Ala Wai Canal was likely to flood if predicted rains arrive, said Ray Alexander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The canal marks the northern boundary of the Waikiki tourist district.

“The canal has flooded in the past, and I believe it’s safe to say based on the forecast of rainfall it’s likely to flood again – the impacts of which we aren’t prepared to say at this time,” Alexander said.

Major flooding could damage 3,000 structures and cost more than $1 billion in repairs, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser newspaper reported, citing Corps estimates.

Not everyone feared the storm.

Swimmers and surfers ignored warnings from authorities and plunged into powerful waves at Oahu’s famed Waikiki Beach, which was closed.

Emergency officials said repeatedly over loudspeakers: “Please get out of the water! It’s very dangerous!” Honolulu’s mayor, Kirk Caldwell, pleaded with tourists that they were putting themselves in danger as the storm churned closer.

Crystal Bowden, a tourist from California, watched powerful waves crash against cliffs on Oahu’s southeast coast.

“I came in to visit, got here just in time for the hurricane,” Bowden said. “We’re kind of excited.”

The American Red Cross said more than 1,100 people were staying in shelters, mostly in Oahu. And while the number was down from earlier reports of approximately 2,000 people in shelters, officials said Saturday that the figure shows that a lot of people are still displaced.

The central Pacific gets fewer hurricanes than other regions, with only about four or five named storms a year. Hawaii rarely gets hit. The last major storm to hit was Iniki in 1992. Others have come close in recent years.