Douglas weakens, but Hawaii could still see severe impact
Honolulu — Hawaii geared up on Saturday to face a hurricane that threatened to pummel the islands with dangerous surf, strong winds and flash floods even as residents grappled with escalating numbers of coronavirus cases.
Powerful storms are familiar to many in Hawaii who have spent the past several summers preparing for tropical cyclones. But the pandemic adds a new twist.
Luke Meyers, the administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, urged people get ready by learning about the hazards where they live.
“We know that things are going to get wet, things are going to blow and things are going to slide,” Meyers said.
The National Weather Service on Saturday issued a hurricane warning for the island of Oahu, where the state’s largest city, Honolulu, is located. The Big Island and Maui remain in a hurricane watch.
Maximum sustained winds have decreased and were about 90 mph (150 kph), making it a Category 1 hurricane by mid-day Saturday.
“Douglas is continuing a gradual, slow, weakening trend, which in itself is good news, but the bad news is that this hurricane is going to come very close to the islands even as it’s weakening,” said Robert Ballard, the science and operations officer at the Central Pacific Hurricane Center. “And we do expect significant impacts as it makes its point of closest approach or possible landfall as it comes through.”
Hawaii Gov. David Ige said officials anticipate rain, wind and storm surge on east-fasting shores.
“We know that it is weakening as it approaches, but it still will have significant impact on each island,” Ige said at a news conference.
State health department officials contacted each of the 625 people who are currently in isolation or quarantine as of Friday because they are either COVID-19 positive or have been in contact with someone who is. Every one of those indicated they would shelter-in-place and not seek refuge at a hurricane shelter.
“That gives a sigh of relief,” said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell.
Caldwell said at the same news conference that 13 shelters will open at 9 a.m. Sunday around Oahu, well ahead of the hurricane impacting the island, anywhere from midday into the evening.
The storm was about 475 miles (580 kilometers) southeast of Honolulu Saturday.
President Donald Trump issued an emergency declaration for Hawaii because of the hurricane, directing federal assistance to supplement state and local response efforts.
The coronavirus was complicating preparations for the American Red Cross, which operates emergency shelters on behalf of local governments.
Many volunteers who normally staff the shelters are staying home because they are older or have pre-existing health conditions that put them at higher risk of getting severely sick if infected by the virus.
At the same time, each shelter will have less capacity because of the physical distancing requirements to prevent the spread of the disease, and more shelters (and workers) will be needed to accommodate people.
Shelters will need 60 square feet (6 square meters) per person or family instead of the 10 square feet (1 square meter) per person needed in the past.
Maui Mayor Michael Victorino said his county won’t open as many shelters for Douglas as a result of the staffing situation. But he still expects to have enough room for those who need to evacuate because there are so few tourists visiting during the pandemic. Travelers are normally some of the biggest users of Maui’s shelters during hurricanes.
The CEO of the Pacific Islands region of the American Red Cross was understanding of those uncomfortable about volunteering during the pandemic. Diane Peters-Nguyen put out a call for others who might be able to help.
“We do ask people to think about that and take care of themselves and their family first. But if they’re able, we really appreciate those that can, to respond,” she said.
Hawaii has some of the lowest coronavirus infection rates in the nation, but COVID-19 numbers have been rising in recent weeks. Every day since Thursday, Hawaii has reported new record highs of new cases, including 73 on Saturday.
At Pearl Harbor, the Navy began moving ships and submarines out to sea where they will stay until the threat from the storm subsides. The Navy will either secure its aircraft in hangars or fly them to other airfields.
Hawaiian Airlines canceled all Sunday flights between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland and also between the other islands.
Ige said residents should already have their 14-day emergency supply kit in place, but because of COVID-19, he encouraged people to add masks, hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes.
Honolulu resident Scott Silva had supplies in hand.
“Just make sure I had enough food, you know, enough extra water, which I usually do anyway, so that’s about it,” he said. “Not expecting too much trouble from this one.”
Hawaii is used to stocking up on food and other essentials to ride out hurricanes. Yet in one sense it is ill-prepared for the storms because so many of Hawaii’s single-family homes are older structures built before building codes were changed in the 1990s to take account of hurricane hazards.
A 2015 state report warned that these homes “will be vulnerable to structural collapse under a hurricane’s high wind pressures and wind-borne debris” unless they have been retrofitted.
Hawaii has been spared the worst in recent years as major hurricanes either weakened as they approached or skirted the main islands all together.
In 2018, Hurricane Lane came toward the state as a Category 5 storm and dumped more than 50 inches of rain on the Big Island, which is mostly rural. Forecasts had called for Lane to slam into Honolulu but strong wind shear largely broke up the storm just south of the state’s biggest city.
Hurricane Iniki made landfall on Kauai as a Category 4 hurricane in 1992. More than 41% of the island’s homes were damaged or destroyed by the storm.
AP journalists Caleb Jones in Honolulu, Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska, and Julie Walker in New York contributed to this report.