Douglas approaching: County prepares for possible strike from tropical cyclone amid pandemic

  • KIM

  • MAGNO

  • BRAVENDER

  • This National Weather Service map shows the projected forecast track of Hurricane Douglas as of 5 p.m. Wednesday.

  • This satellite photo from NASA shows Hurricane Douglas as it churns to the west-northwest toward the Hawaiian Islands.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami say it’s possible Hurricane Douglas could reach Hawaii Island at hurricane strength by Sunday, although forecasts predict it will arrive as a tropical storm.

“Douglas could maintain hurricane intensity as it approaches the Hawaiian Islands, and all interests on the islands should monitor the forecasts as they evolve over the next few days,” wrote Robbie Berg, an NHC hurricane specialist, on Wednesday.

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The storm, which was 1,565 miles east-southeast of Hilo at 5 p.m. Wednesday, had strengthened into a Category 2 hurricane, packing maximum sustained winds of 100 mph. The cyclone was moving briskly to the west-northwest at 17 mph, and forecasters predicted Douglas would become a major hurricane today.

John Bravender, warning coordination meteorologist for the Central Pacific Hurricane Center in Honolulu, said the storm will weaken slowly as it moves west-northwest into “increasingly cooler water.”

“How strong it gets will have a big impact as to what we see, as far as impacts, in Hawaii,” Bravender said.

Bravender cautioned weather watchers not to focus so much on forecast track or predictions of storm intensity four days away from landfall, saying about the track, “It will change over the coming days.”

“Impact-wise, we’re too far out to talk about specifics or specific islands,” Bravender said. “But with a tropical cyclone this strong, there could be significant wind damage … whether it’s a hurricane or a tropical storm. There’s also a significant threat for flash flooding. There’s a lot of moisture and there could be a lot of rainfall with this.”

County and state emergency management officials — who have been on heightened alert for the past four months because of the coronavirus pandemic — are keeping an eye on the storm, which hadn’t yet crossed into the Central Pacific basin as of Wednesday evening.

“It’s still multiple days out. So we’re going to prepare and address all the factors that we need to. We’ve got shelters throughout the island that will prep. I’ve talked to (Hawaii County Department of) Parks and Recreation and the American Red Cross to see what we need for the island,” said Talmadge Magno, county Civil Defense administrator.

Mayor Harry Kim issued Emergency Rule No. 10 on Wednesday, which set limits on outdoor gatherings at 100 people and indoor gatherings at 50 people, with social distancing required. Asked if the 50-person limit would apply to emergency shelters, Kim replied “absolutely,” but added that, depending on the size of the facility, adjustments could be made.

The rule also mandates that face masks or coverings be worn in most public circumstances.

“Wearing a face covering in public is so important,” said Kim. “These coverings protect each other from possible infection from COVID-19.”

Maria Lutz, regional disaster officer for the American Red Cross of Hawaii, said in late May that face masks will be provided for shelter evacuees who arrive without them, and those found to have a fever or other symptoms of COVID-19 will be isolated from the general shelter population and provided medical attention.

“For the people that are under quarantine, if they’re in a substantial, modern structure, we’re asking them to stay put,” Magno said. “For our sheltering, we will make accommodations. Parks and Rec have identified staff that can do health screening and monitoring. And then we’ll do the separation, if we need to, in the shelters.”

According to Magno, as of Wednesday there were 48 people on Hawaii Island being monitored in a quarantine situation, and seven active COVID-19 cases, with those patients in isolation.

“Isolated are confirmed positive cases,” Magno said. “The monitored are identified as close contacts. Pretty much, they’re treated the same, but you don’t want to mix the monitored with the active, because you’ve got a chance that the monitored people are not infected, so you want to treat them differently.”

Hawaii Island hasn’t taken a direct hit from a hurricane-strength cyclone in recorded history, but there have been two tropical storms in the past six years that made landfall on the Big Island.

Iselle, a former Category 1 hurricane, was downgraded to a tropical storm before coming ashore on the Big Island’s southeast coast at about midnight Aug. 8, 2014, with winds of 60 mph. The storm caused millions of dollars in damage to coastal homes in Puna, devastated crops in Puna and Ka‘u, downed utility poles, knocking out power and telephone to some residents for days, and blocked roads with fallen albizia trees.

Tropical Storm Darby, a former Category 3 hurricane, had maximum sustained winds of 40 mph when it hit July 23, 2016, but caused a serious amount of rain, power outages, the grounding of a vessel in Kona and 109 people staying overnight in Big Island evacuation shelters.

In late August 2018, Hurricane Lane, a large, slow-moving storm, passed well south of the Big Island, but its outer bands soaked East Hawaii with historic amounts of rainfall — more than 51 inches in Mountain View between Aug. 22-26 — causing flash flooding and evacuations on Reed’s Island in Hilo, Keaau Agricultural Lots subdivision and in Waipio Valley.

Flooding from Lane was so extensive that on Aug. 24, three major highways were closed at one time, then-Managing Director Wil Okabe said. The flooding and debris left roads potholed and weakened in places, and county facilities were damaged to the tune of about $20 million.

Kim said Wednesday that those whose homes in danger of flooding can obtain sand bags by calling Civil Defense at 935-0031.

Magno said officials are “concerned” about Douglas’ approach. “We’ve been tracking it the past couple of days and I’ve talked to the different departments to make sure they have their pre-impact plans in place, activated, their personnel plans ready, their family plans in place so they don’t have to worry about their families.”

Luke Meyers, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency administrator, said on Facebook Live that it’s important to stock emergency supplies, such as nonperishable food for all family members, clean water, pet food, medications and batteries for flashlights and radios.

“We have traditionally emphasized 14 days of supplies, and we’ve seen that practiced during COVID,” Meyers said. “But during hurricane season, it’s really important. We have a lot of dependencies on supplies and commodities coming into the islands, and 14 days is a good starting point for you and your family. Most importantly … during COVID this year, we want you to add hand sanitizer and masks to those kits.”

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Kim said it’s important to stay informed about the storm by getting information “from a credible source.” The Hawaii County Civil Defense website has a sign-up for email and text message alerts.

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

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