Storm could cause ‘catastrophic flooding’ in Hawaii, forecasters warn
By Eduardo Medina
A seasonal cyclone inundated Hawaii with heavy rainfall Monday that was expected to continue through Tuesday afternoon, bringing the potential for “catastrophic flooding,” landslides and widespread loss of power throughout the islands, the National Weather Service said.
Gov. David Ige of Hawaii signed an emergency declaration Monday afternoon, which freed state funds to be used for losses caused by flooding and other cyclone damage.
The cyclone is a type of storm called a kona low, which typically stalls, drops large amounts of rain in one location and comes from a southerly direction, bringing moisture to areas that do not usually get much rainfall, the service said.
But given the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, it is rare for a kona low to stall directly over the Hawaiian islands, as one is doing this week, meteorologists said.
“This is an extreme weather event,” said Adam Weintraub, a spokesperson for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.
Weintraub said that as of Monday afternoon, there had been no confirmed fatalities related to the storm.
As of Monday afternoon, parts of Maui had already received about 12 inches of rain, “a dangerous amount,” said David Roth, a meteorologist with the Weather Service.
That danger is expected to heighten, officials said, as rainfall totals could reach 10 to 15 inches across the state by Tuesday, with isolated areas seeing up to 25 inches, according to the service.
“Please avoid any nonessential travel,” the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency said in Twitter post. The agency also said it would begin assessing damage Tuesday.
Oahu, the most populated island and home to Honolulu, is expected to receive heavy rainfall Monday night and early Tuesday, Weintraub said.
By Monday afternoon, several major roadways were closed, including a portion of Highway 11 in the southern region of the island of Hawaii, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.
All the islands were on a flood watch Monday, several public schools canceled classes and Ige warned residents on Twitter, “now is the time to make sure you have an emergency plan in place and supplies ready should you need to move away from rising water.”
The mayor of Hawaii County, Mitchell Roth, declared a state of emergency Sunday, allowing state agencies to mobilize and request assistance from the federal government in the event of a disaster.
Nearly 5,000 people in Hawaii were without power Monday afternoon, according to poweroutage.us, a website that tracks power failures. State officials were anticipating that number to increase throughout the day.
Hawaiian Electric, an electricity company in the islands, said on Twitter that the helicopters typically used to assess damage in Maui County could not be used Monday because of the gusty winds.
Some beaches across the state were closed because the water was “a good two to three feet higher than normal,” increasing the chances of flooding along coastal areas, Weintraub said.
The eastern sections of the state, including the cities of Keaau and Hilo, could experience the heaviest rainfall Monday, Weintraub said. The cyclone is expected to shift westward Monday night and early Tuesday, the Weather Service said.
Officials are preparing for “fast water rescues” in significantly flooded areas, Weintraub said.
Because “everything runs off” easily from the slick volcanic rocks of Hawaii’s natural geography, including lava and water, flooding could be severe in parts of the islands, Roth said.
“For areas that are volcanic, you’re dealing with steep slopes, especially in places where people are living near the base of them — so yeah, that’s a problem,” he said.
The Weather Service said that “numerous” landslides were expected in areas with steep terrain.
“Debris in streams and gulches may clog bridges and culverts resulting in dangerous flooding,” the service said.
It also said that isolated highways and urban areas, especially on Oahu, could also have severe flooding.
Meteorologists warned residents to avoid walking or driving through floodwaters.
The storm system also brought snow to the Big Island summits, which rise to well over 11,000 feet. But meteorologists said that was not an uncommon elevation for snow to fall, even on a tropical island — and that the rain was a much more important concern.
“I worry that one of our social media posts made everyone focus on the blizzard rather than the rain, which is exactly the same system,” Roth said.