A hurricane that beat the odds is poised to roar across Hawaii on Thursday, blasting the island paradise with heavy rains, damaging winds and hammering surf.
Hurricane Iselle is forecast to becomes the first hurricane to smash into the islands in more than two decades. A couple of days later, Hurricane Julio could be the second one.
Forecasters had expected Iselle to fall prey to the long trip across the Pacific and the region's strong upper air flow that is capable of breaking up some of the mightiest storms. But Iselle was unrelenting, so the run on bottled water, milk and toilet paper is in full swing.
"The real effects will probably be felt on the Big Island starting around noon" (6 p.m. ET) Thursday, Norman Hui, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Honolulu, told USA TODAY. "The worst of it will be tonight. This storm is holding together pretty well."
Radji Tolentino, a Realtor in Ewa Beach on the island of Oahu, was pleased to grab the last box of batteries at Costo. The bottled water was gone, but he did purchase containers to fill with tap water. His mother, a diabetic on kidney dialysis, was getting treatment Thursday.
"We are a little worried that the dialysis center might lose power, and she goes on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays," he said. "But they gave us a diet to put her on so she should be okay."
Oahu, a smaller but more populated island than Hawaii that includes Honolulu, should avoid the worst of the storm, Hui said. But tropical storm conditions are likely there overnight and Friday. The Big Island, the state's most easterly island, was on track to take the brunt of the storm.
Only a few hours before the expected landfall, The Big Island was rattled by a magnitude-4.5 earthquake that struck about 7 miles from Waimea. There were no immediate reports of casualties or major damage.
Iselle, as of 11 a.m. ET Thursday, was about 300 miles east of Hilo on the Big Island, with maximum sustained winds of 80 mph. A Category 1 hurricane, the lowest level hurricane, requires sustained winds of at least 74 mph.
At daybreak in Hilo, the skies were overcast but there was no rain. The winds were mild.
Hui said it's possible the Big Island's mountainous volcanoes could provide some buffer. Still, the island's population of more than 180,000 people could be in for a wild ride, with violent winds, heavy rain and flooding.
Hurricane Julio lurked more than 1,000 miles east of Hawaii, a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 100 mph. Hui said its current track sends it just north of the islands, probably late Sunday or Monday. But Julio was too far away to make a firm determination on its fate, Hui said.
State officials tried to assure people that the islands are ready and people need not panic. Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed an emergency proclamation allowing officials to tap into a disaster fund set aside by the state Legislature.
"The sole purpose is to see to it the health and safety of the people of Hawaii is first and foremost," Abercrombie said.
Hawaiian Airlines waived reservation change fees and fare differences for passengers who needed to alter travel plans Thursday and Friday because of the storms. Hawaiian Airlines spokeswoman Ann Botticelli said hundreds of inquires poured in from customers seeking to change their flights. Tourists wondered whether their flights and activities would be disrupted and tried to get in some last-minute beach time before the surf's up, but ugly.
"Everybody says this is the last day of good weather, so we came down to the beach," said Shonna Snodgrass, a tourist in Waikiki visiting from Stafford, Va.
Hawaii is used to preparing for tropical storms _ stock up on water, toilet paper and other essentials and wait. But actually getting hit with systems like the two approaching the islands? Not as much. (Aug. 6) AP
Some residents were voting early in primary elections that close Saturday. The elections include several marquee races, including congressional and gubernatorial races. Abercrombie, who is running for re-election in a tight Democratic primary, said the election was expected to move forward as planned.
The storms are rare but not unexpected in years with a developing El Nino, a change in ocean temperature that affects weather around the world. Hawaii has been directly hit by hurricanes only three times since 1950. The last time Hawaii was hit with a tropical storm or hurricane was in 1992, when Hurricane Iniki killed six people and destroyed more than 1,400 homes in Kauai, said meteorologist Eric Lau.