Northeast swell could cause trouble

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald A surfer rides waves on a hydrofoil board Tuesday at Hilo Bayfront.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

    A bodyboarder rides a wave Tuesday at Hilo Bayfront.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald A surfer rides waves on a hydrofoil board Tuesday at Hilo Bayfront.

Weather and public safety officials are warning oceanfront residents and beachgoers in East Hawaii that surf expected today and Thursday could be the highest in a decade-and-a-half.

“This is one of the bigger northeast swell events that we’ve seen, at least since 2003,” said forecaster Chris Brenchley of the National Weather Service on Tuesday. “It’s coming from a big low-pressure system that’s pretty far off to our northeast, just offshore of California. … It’s generated a swell pointed at us.”

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Forecasters are predicting wave heights to peak between 20 and 25 feet. A high surf warning is in effect from 6 a.m. today to 6 p.m. Thursday evening.

A high surf warning means there is a dangerous threat to life and property from the surf along the affected shorelines of windward Kohala, Hamakua, Hilo and Puna.

“These dangerous conditions mean that only highly experienced persons should enter the water. Inexperienced persons should remain off beaches and adjacent beachfront areas,” the weather service warning said.

Hawaii County Civil Defense said to expect road and beach closures without prior notice.

Brenchley said it’s rare for dangerous surf to come from the northeast and said residents along those shorelines are “generally not used to dealing with” the potential impacts when waves become potentially destructive to lives and property.

He recalled a destructive swell between Nov. 8-10, 1996, as an example.

“It was similar, but probably bigger than, the event we’re looking at here. It caused pretty widespread damage on the Big Island,” he said. “There were 28 residents evacuated from homes and encampments in King’s Landing, Keaukaha and Radio Bay. High surf washed a Keaukaha home off its foundation and moved the structure 60 feet. Hilo Bay had damage inside the breakwater, hyper-surges. A rock seawall on Kumau Street broke down. There was heavy erosion.”

The weather service’s high surf warning said residents and beachgoers can “expect ocean water surging and sweeping across beaches, coastal benches and lava flows, creating the potential for impacts to coastal properties and infrastructure, including roadways. Powerful longshore and rip currents will be present at most beaches. Large breaking waves and strong currents may impact harbor entrances and channels causing challenging boat handling” in and near the port of Hilo.

Todd Barry of Young Brothers’ Hilo office said Tuesday it’s possible barge arrivals could be affected by the high surf.

“Nothing definitive at this point,” Barry said, adding that a barge was scheduled to leave Honolulu for Hilo on Tuesday evening.

“It’s a little more than a 24-hour voyage, normally, to give it enough time to get into Hilo port,” he said. “It shouldn’t be too much problem getting it here on time, but we might have some surges in the harbor that make it hard to work the barge. But people don’t usually come in to pick up their cars until they’re called by the customer service group.”

A representative for Matson Hawaii said that company’s shipping to Hilo shouldn’t be affected by the weather.

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An email from the Harbors Division’s Hilo office said a port call for the ship Regatta scheduled for today was canceled, although it’s unclear if that cancellation is surf-related. The ship is still scheduled to make stops in Hilo on Monday, March 26, and Friday, March 30.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.