HAWAII (CBSLA.com/AP) — Forecasters on Wednesday downgraded a previously issued warning for Hawaii’s Big Island, saying Hurricane Madeline would likely weaken to a tropical storm as it passes to the south of the island.
The development came as merchants boarded up shop windows along Hilo Bay and shoppers snatched supplies of food and water from grocery store shelves after initially being told the island could be hit by its first hurricane in a quarter-century.
The National Weather Service downgraded the alert to a tropical storm warning as Madeline was about 95 miles southeast of Hilo and packing 75 mph winds. The center of the storm is not expected to make landfall on any Hawaiian island.
Residents were still advised to take precautions to protect themselves and their property.
The storms were also churning up uncertainty at LAX, where many fliers were monitoring the storm on their smartphones. Still, flights to the islands were on-time for the most part Wednesday and fliers said they were ready to go.
“We’ve been monitoring the storm ourselves for four days,” said Kelley Thompson, who is leading a trip of a dozen outrigger canoe paddlers to Kona. “We knew it was coming.”
Airlines were nonetheless offering customers the chance to change their plans.
Hawaiian Airlines said customers holding tickets to or from Hawaii’s Big Island from Aug. 31 to Sept. 1 would be allowed a one-time reservation change without a fee.
Customers traveling to, from or through Kahului and Kona on Wednesday or Thursday are eligible to make a one-time change without facing a fee as long as travel occurs before Sept. 6.
In Hawaii, residents were bracing for the storms by stocking up on food and other essential items.
Peggy Beckett, a retiree and beekeeper, stopped at a Hilo supermarket to pick up some onions bagels, cheese, cold cuts and salad to add to her canned food at home. She has a cooler with ice in it plus a portable burner and batteries to get her through the storm.
“There’s always a lot of disbelief on the island that the storms will really be as big and bad as forecast,” Beckett said.
The Keaau resident and her partner made sure to put extra rocks on their beehives to protect them from the storm.
Noting the lines of people inside the supermarket, Beckett said she thought people were getting prepared but weren’t panicking.
Hurricane Madeline was downgraded from a Category 3 storm to a 2, before being further downgraded to a Category 1 with sustained winds of about 90 mph.
It was weakening as it approached the islands and was expected to pass just south of the Big Island around 2 a.m. Thursday (5 a.m. PDT). But if the storm track shifts slightly to the north, the eye of the storm could pass over land.
“Hopefully our roofs stay on, and our houses don’t float way or get blown away,” said Big Island resident Mitzi Bettencourt, who boarded up walls of glass windows at her brother’s oceanfront home. “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, are we going to get flattened or what?’ “
Bettencourt, who lives in a subdivision called Kapoho Vacationland, manages several vacation rental properties and has her own home to worry about, which sits a few blocks from the ocean. She and her neighbors were stocking their pantries, stowing away lawn furniture and preparing for power outages.
“If they’re not prepared now, they should get prepared fast,” said Chevy Chevalier, a meteorologist with the weather service.
The last hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii was Hurricane Iniki in 1992, which hit Kauai, Chevalier said.
A second Pacific hurricane, called Lester, is still far from Hawaii, and it is expected to weaken to a tropical storm as it passes the state, Chevalier said.
Gov. David Ige issued an emergency proclamation for both storms, which will allow the state to quickly spend money to alleviate disasters. “I urge you to take immediate steps to protect your families, loved ones, employees and property,” Ige said in a statement.
The state Department of Education announced public schools would be closed Wednesday and Thursday in anticipation of severe weather, and about a dozen schools were turned into emergency shelters.
President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Oahu this week. The White House is tracking the weather developments closely, but it doesn’t anticipate changing Obama’s schedule.
The islands of Maui, Molokai and Lanai were under a tropical storm watch, but there were no alerts for Oahu or Kauai.
On the Big Island, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was closing some areas Tuesday, and park officials planned for the coastal lava viewing area to close by Wednesday morning. Some camping areas were closing, but guests staying at Kilauea Military Camp and Volcano House were allowed to shelter in place.
The U.S. Coast Guard asked crews of barges and ships to prepare to leave Hilo Harbor and told ocean-going vessels to seek sheltered waters until storm conditions subside. Captain Mike Long said he expected to close Hilo Harbor to all traffic by 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Hawaii County, which covers the Big Island, urged residents to restock their emergency kits with a flashlight, fresh batteries, cash and first-aid supplies. It recommended that residents create evacuation plans and secure outdoor furniture.
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