HONOLULU (Reuters) – Hurricane Lane crept closer toward the heart of the Hawaiian islands on Friday as it weakened into a tropical storm while still drenching the Big Island with torrential rains and severe, widespread flooding, weather and civil defense officials said.
Lane, with maximum sustained winds diminishing to near 70 mph (110 kph), was forecast to make its nearest approach to land just west of the island chain over the weekend, bringing tropical storm-force conditions to Maui and the state’s most populous island, Oahu, starting on Friday night.
Farther north, a tropical storm watch was posted for the island of Kauai.
The biggest immediate danger was posed by flooding and mudslides that could grow worse the longer the storm lingers close to the U.S. Pacific island chain, soaking the landscape.
But forecasts made clear that Hawaii had been spared from the threat of its first direct hit by a major hurricane in a quarter of a century, although many residents had already boarded up windows of their homes as a precaution.
Lane was downgraded on Friday to a Category 2 hurricane, then to a Category 1, the lowest ranking on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, as it churned through the Pacific south of Oahu, the National Weather Service said. It was downgraded again to a tropical storm shortly before 5 p.m. local time as its maximum sustained wind speeds fell below 74 mph.
The storm was expected to continue drifting slowly northward and weaken further still before trade winds overtake its forward momentum and begin pushing it sharply off to the west and away from land on Saturday, Weather Service forecaster Leigh Anne Eaton told a news conference in Honolulu.
Forecasts called for Lane, which peaked as a Category 5 hurricane earlier in the week, to diminish into a tropical depression by early on Sunday.
Still, the storm posed a considerable weather hazard to parts of the state, with the island of Hawaii, popularly known as the Big Island, bearing the brunt of torrential downpours from Lane.
More than 2 feet (60 cm) of rain had fallen in a 36-hour period by Friday morning on the Big Island’s windward side, where the Weather Service reported “catastrophic flooding” and wind gusts peaking at 67 mph (108 kph). Eaton said some parts of the island had received nearly 3 feet of rain.
A number of structures on the Big Island were destroyed and some residents were reported to be fleeing their homes, said Melissa Dye, a Weather Service spokeswoman in Honolulu.
Fire department personnel have conducted several rescues of people stranded by high water on the Big Island since Thursday, mostly around its biggest city, Hilo, said Kelly Wooten, a Hawaii County civil defense spokeswoman.
Overnight, the National Guard and fire department rescued six people and their dog, and two hikers were rescued by helicopter near the camping destination of Waimanu Valley, Wooten said. There were no injuries.
She said two Hilo-area neighborhoods were evacuated.
Flash flooding and mudslides on the Big Island have also forced a number of road closures and Governor David Ige urged residents to avoid any unnecessary travel.
Reporting by Jolyn Rosa; Additional reporting by Diane Craft in Kailua, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Makini Brice in Washington, Alex Dobzinskis in Los Angeles and Gabriella Borter in New York Writing by Daniel Wallis and Steve Gorman; Editing by Toni Reinhold, Sandra Maler and Paul Tait