With no place to run, Hawaii prepares for Hurricane Lane

Hurricane Lane has weakened as it approaches Hawaii but is still expected to pack a punch, forecasters said Wednesday.

Canadian government issues travel advisory for much of state

With nowhere to go, residents across Hawaii were busy Wednesday stocking up on provisions as they prepared to ride out the storm. (Dennis Fujimoto/The Garden Island/Associated Press)

Hawaii residents emptied store shelves Wednesday, claimed the last sheets of plywood to board up windows and drained gas pumps as Hurricane Lane churned toward the state.

The Category 4 storm could slam into the islands Thursday with winds exceeding 161 km/h, making it the most powerful storm to hit Hawaii since Hurricane Iniki in 1992.

Unlike Florida or Texas, where residents can get in their cars and drive hundreds of kilometres to safety, people in Hawaii are confined to the islands and can't outrun the powerful winds and driving rain.

Instead, they must stay put and make sure they have enough supplies to outlast prolonged power outages and other potential emergencies.

Hurricane Lane is photographed by a NASA satellite as it approaches Hawaii on Tuesday. The Big Island can be seen in the top left. (NASA/Reuters)

"Everyone is starting to buckle down at this point," said​ Christyl Nagao, of Kauai. "Our families are here. We have businesses and this and that. You just have to man your fort and hold on tight."

Living in an isolated island state also means the possibility that essential goods can't be shipped to Hawaii if the storm shuts down ports.

"You're stuck here and resources might not get here in time,"​ Nagao said.

On Wednesday morning, the Canadian government issued an advisory, telling travellers to avoid all non-essential travel to Hawaii and Maui counties — including the islands of Maui, Lanai, Molokai, Kahoolawe — as well as to Oahu and Kauai islands, due to the approaching storm. 

Emergency shelters open

The U.S. National Weather Service said Lane is expected to make a gradual turn toward the northwest Wednesday, followed by a more northward motion into the islands on Thursday.

"The centre of Lane will move very close to or over the main Hawaiian islands from Thursday through Saturday," the weather service said.

Public schools were closed for the rest of the week and local government workers were told to stay home unless they're essential employees. 

Shelters were being readied to open on Oahu, Maui, Molokai and Lanai. Officials said they would open shelters on other islands as needed. Officials were also working to help Hawaii's sizeable homeless population, many of whom live near beaches and streams that could flood.

Hawaii Emergency Management Agency administrator Tom Travis said there's not enough shelter space statewide. He advised those who are not in flood zones to stay home.

Many residents were trying to reinforce older homes made with single-wall construction.

Wilder Chok, a Honolulu resident, gets gasoline as Hurricane Lane approached the island of Oahu on Tuesday evening. (Hugh Gentry/Reuters)

"We're planning on boarding up all our windows and sliding doors," said Napua Puaoi, of Wailuku, Maui, after buying 16 pieces of plywood from Home Depot. "As soon as my husband comes home — he has all the power tools."

Melanie Davis, who lives in a suburb outside Honolulu, said she was gathering canned food and baby formula.

"We're getting some bags of rice and, of course, some Spam," she said of the canned lunch meat that's popular in Hawaii.

She was organizing important documents into a folder — birth and marriage certificates, social security cards, insurance paperwork — and making sure her three children, all under four, have flotation devices such as life-jackets.

Major storm, despite downgrades

Meteorologist Chevy Chevalier said Lane may drop to a Category 3 by Thursday afternoon but that it would still be a major hurricane.

"We expect it to gradually weaken as it gets closer to the islands," Chevalier said. "That being said, on our current forecast, as of the afternoon on Thursday, we still have it as a major hurricane."

Puaoi said Home Depot opened at 6 a.m. local time and employees reported there was already a line around the building.

"We are fully stocked," she said. "We have about nine cases of water because we're having family stay with us as well, so one case per person."

Emergency supplies were being swept up by Honolulu shoppers who were preparing for the approaching hurricane. (Marco Garcia/Associated Press)

The U.S. navy was moving its ships and submarines out of Hawaii. All vessels not currently undergoing maintenance were being positioned to help respond after the storm, if needed.

Navy aircraft will be kept in hangars or flown to other airfields to avoid the storm.

Memory of 1992 hurricane looms

The central Pacific gets fewer hurricanes than other regions, with about only four or five named storms a year. Hawaii rarely gets hit. The last major storm to hit was Iniki in 1992. Others have come close in recent years.

"Winds tend to steer storms away from there," said Princeton University climate scientist Gabe Vecchi. He also said upper level winds, called shear, tend to be strong enough to tear storms apart.

Puaoi was 12 when Iniki hit Hawaii. "When it did happen, I just remember, pandemonium, it was all out craziness," she said.

Some people have seen similarities in the paths of Hurricanes Lane and Iniki. But Chevalier said today's more advanced and accurate information indicates they're completely different storms.

Nagao, who was 7 when Iniki hit, remembers that it took years before life on Kauai felt normal again.

"A lot of families didn't prepare for it," she said, recalling how her family had filled a boat with hundreds of gallons of water.

Hawaii has had a few hurricane scares since. "Nothing ever happened," Nagao said. "But this one, for sure, since yesterday, it started hitting home where I started having a little bit of anxiety."