HONOLULU – Barely holding on to hurricane strength, Iselle’s outer edges brought rain and wind to Hawaii Thursday afternoon as it approached landfall, poised to become the first hurricane or tropical storm to hit the island chain in 22 years and whose path another hurricane closely followed.
Hurricane Iselle was expected to pass overnight across the Big Island, one of the least populated islands known for coffee fields, volcanoes and black sand beaches, then send rain and high winds to the rest of the state today. The storm’s predicted track had it skirting just south of the other islands.
Iselle was expected hit as a high-end tropical storm or low-end hurricane, the National Weather Service in Honolulu said in a news conference.
Forecasters were analyzing storm data before making changes to its categorization in the coming hours, Weather Service meteorologist Eric Lau said in a telephone interview.
“But we’re not really too concerned about the track or the intensity of the system,” Lau said. “We’re primarily urging residents to still take proper precautions to prepare themselves to keep everyone safe.”
Meanwhile, Hurricane Julio, a Category 2 storm, followed Iselle’s path with sustained maximum winds of 105 mph. It was about 1,000 miles behind Iselle and projected to head just north of the islands early Sunday.
Hawaii has been directly hit by hurricanes only three times since 1950. The last time Hawaii was hit with a hurricane or tropical storm was in 1992, when Hurricane Iniki killed six people and destroyed more than 1,400 homes in Kauai, Lau said.
Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie said the state is prepared for the back-to-back storms, noting the National Guard is at the ready and state and local governments were closing offices, schools and transit services across Hawaii. Emergency shelters also opening.
State Attorney General David Louie promised that Saturday’s primary elections, including congressional and gubernatorial races, will go forward as planned.
As residents prepared earlier Thursday for the possible one-two punch of storms, a 4.5-magnitude earthquake struck the Big Island but didn’t cause major damage. There were no reports of injuries as residents made last-minute trips to grocery stores and boarded up their homes.
Kelsey Walker said the quake felt like a “little jolt” but didn’t knock things off shelves at the Waimea grocery store where he works.
“We have a hurricane. Now we have this on top of it. What else?” Walker mused.
Travelers got their first word of disrupted plans because of the storm Thursday, when commuter airline Island Air said it was canceling some afternoon flights and shutting down all operations Friday.
American Airlines and US Airways announced they have canceled flights in and out of the Big Island and Maui after 6 p.m. Thursday through noon today.
Hawaiian Airlines canceled some interisland flights for Thursday evening and moved its Maui-Los Angeles flight up by nearly five hours. The airline waived reservation change fees and fare differences for passengers who needed to alter their plans Thursday and today, while some travelers remained optimistic.
Washington state couple Tracy Black and Chris Kreifels made plans to get married in an outdoor ceremony on the Big Island on Saturday. They spent this week getting a marriage license, adjusting plans and communicating with worried guests on the mainland.
“We see the rain as a blessing,” Black said. “It will work out as it’s supposed to.”
Elsewhere on the island, residents seemed to be heeding the warnings and staying inside.
“It’s quiet, nobody’s around right now. It’s kind of eerie,” Hilo resident Kimo Makuakane said.
Officials at Mauna Kea Observatories, a collection of 13 telescopes operated by astronomers from 11 countries located around 14,000 feet atop a dormant volcano on the Big Island, said the site was being secured and that visitor stargazing will be canceled Thursday night.
“It’s starting to get gusty on the summit of Mauna Kea,” said the observatory’s Gwen Biggert.
But the telescopes are in no danger, said Roy Gal, astronomer and outreach specialist for the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy.
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.
Ahead of this year’s hurricane season, weather officials warned that the wide swath of the Pacific Ocean that includes Hawaii could see four to seven tropical storms this year.