August 22, 2018

Hurricane Lane Poses the Greatest Storm Threat to Hawaii in a Generation

Hurricane Lane is on course to pose the greatest tropical threat to Hawaii since Hurricane Iniki made landfall on Kauai nearly 26 years ago. While the powerful category four storm is not currently forecast to make a direct landfall on any of the main islands, the hurricane's wide-reaching effects will still touch all seven populated islands later this week.

The storm reached its peak strength on Monday night, achieving category five intensity with 160 MPH winds, a rare feat for storms in this part of the Pacific Ocean. Hurricane Lane has since weakened a bit and it will continue to lose strength over the next couple of days. However, "weakening" is a relative term, and Lane will still be a strong hurricane when it comes perilously close the state on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

Dangerous Even Without Landfall

The latest forecast from the Central Pacific Hurricane Center in Honolulu shows that Lane is a high-end category four hurricane with maximum winds of 150 MPH. The storm has started to gain latitude, moving on a west-northwesterly course toward Hawaii. The current forecast shows Lane scraping all seven populated islands as a hurricane between Thursday and Saturday before it makes its way west toward open sea.

Hurricane Lane will be dangerous even if its eye never makes landfall. The path of the storm on the forecast map above only applies to the eye of the hurricane. The dangerous effects of the storm—strong winds, heavy rain, storm surge, rough surf, and tornadoes—will extend hundreds of miles away from the eye.

Even on an offshore track, it's increasingly likely that the entire state of Hawaii will experience a period of hazardous weather conditions.

Tropical storm force winds currently extend 140 miles from the center of the storm. It wouldn't take much of an eastward wobble in the storm's track to bring hurricane force winds onshore. In fact, the latest CPHC forecast shows hurricane force winds reaching the heavily-populated southern shore of Oahu, home to Honolulu.

A storm surge greater than three feet is possible on south- and west-facing shores, especially on the Big Island and Oahu. This could cause major coastal flooding in and around Honolulu and Pearl Harbor. Flash flooding will be a major concern with this hurricane. The entire island chain could see more than 10 inches of rain with more than a foot likely around higher terrain where orographic lift enhances rainfall rates. The heavy rain will also trigger mudslides and rockslides in mountainous areas. High surf and rip currents will pose a significant danger to swimmers, boaters, and communities along the immediate coast.

Lane Isn't Iselle

One of the issues we run into when we talk about storms threatening the contiguous United States is that a decent portion of coastal residents just don't want to take tropical threats seriously. This is a big problem in a state like Florida, where, despite the extended hurricane drought between 2007 and 2017, residents feel like they have the experience and moxie ride out any storm below a certain category on the Saffir-Simpson Scale.

Hopefully this issue of comparative complacency won't be too much of a factor in Hawaii. The island chain hasn't been directly affected by as many hurricanes as you'd think given its location.

Surprising as it is, Hawaii really hasn't had to deal with many hurricanes in its modern history. The state has had many glancing blows with tropical cyclones in recent decades, but few full-fledged hurricanes have come as close as the forecast track for Hurricane Lane. The last major hurricane to affect the state was Hurricane Iniki in September 1992. The category four hurricane , which made landfall with little advanced warning, left behind significant damage on Kauai.

The closest analogy in recent times was Hurricane Iselle, which made landfall as a tropical storm on the eastern shore of the Big Island in August 2014. The storm's path took the center of circulation directly over the island's 13,000-foot volcanoes, shredding the system apart before it could bring serious effects to any other islands.

Unfortunately, Lane is not similar to Iselle. This hurricane will be considerably stronger than Iselle at its closest approach and it's approaching the islands on a curving path from the south, which will spread its effects over all of the islands in the coming days.

This looks like it will be a storm unlike anything Hawaii has faced in decades.

The Preparation Problem

Hawaii is cemented in the American worldview as the mainland's vacation destination. Everyone dreams of going to Hawaii to spent a week or two without a care in the world. The state is home to more than a million people, however, and they really don't have many options to escape the worst of a hurricane.

Hawaii's infrastructure outside of major cities is not as well-built as many hurricane-prone areas of the contiguous United States. Homes, roads, and electrical grids may not fare as well against a hurricane's wind and rain as we would see on the mainland.

Tourists can also pose a unique safety issue during a hurricane. Most tourists will leave a vacation destination ahead of a storm, but a lot of folks—especially in an expensive and hard-to-leave vacation spot like Hawaii—decide to ride it out and hope for the best.

A hurricane approaching an island chain is different from a hurricane approaching a continent. You can't really evacuate from the storm unless you catch one of the last flights out before airlines start cancelling departures. When you're on an island, you can only evacuate to relatively safer spots—sturdy buildings that are away from flooding and mudslide dangers.

For many tourists, this means staying in the hotel for several rainy, possibly-powerless days at a time. No beach. No restaurants. No Instagram selfies on cliffs. Just staying put and staying occupied. Some people won't want to do that, and every tourist who tries to go all Reed Timmer and venture into the storm makes it that much harder for rescue and aid to reach the endangered residents who—let's not put it gently—actually belong there.

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.