Officials continue to track Hurricane Iselle as it bears down on the Big Island.
At 8 p.m. Thursday, the storm was centered about 70 miles southeast of Hilo, continuing to move toward the Big Island at about 15 mph.
A hurricane warning remains in effect for the Big Island as Iselle packs maximum sustained winds of about 75 miles an hour, less intense than earlier in the day but still a category one hurricane, Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Darryl Oliveira said.
Tracking images from the National Weather Service project the eye of the storm to hit the island just north of Cape Kumukahi in Puna, the Big Island’s easternmost point.
Oliveira said at about 7:30 p.m. it appears Iselle “may be starting to break up.” As of 9 p.m., Big Island residents were still bracing for impact from the storm, although some areas, including Waimea, were experiencing winds of 50-60 mph and heavy rainfall.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Julio, which is tracking about 900 miles behind Iselle, has strengthened to a category three hurricane with maximum sustained winds at about 115 mph. On its current projected track, it would pass to the north of the Hawaiian Islands late Saturday night or early Sunday morning.
The Emergency Operations Center at Civil Defense Headquarters continued to be a beehive of activity Thursday afternoon and evening as news about the storm and its effects on people’s everyday lives continued to pour in.
Hawaiian Airlines terminated flights at Hilo International Airport at 3:35 p.m., according to Kevin Dayton, a spokesman for Kenoi. He added that Hawaiian’s final two flights out of Kona, at 5:38 p.m. and 6:59 p.m. were also cancelled.
“(County) bus service is suspended as of 7:30 p.m. tonight. There will be no service tomorrow. Service may resume on Saturday, depending on road conditions,” Dayton said.
There were also several road closures, Dayton said at about 5:15 p.m. That includes Hawaii Belt Road (Highway 19) at Umauma Bridge at the 16-mile marker. The bridge has been undergoing construction for some time and engineers decided to close it out of an abundance of caution, he said. Kohala Mountain Road (Highway 250) was closed at Waiaku Bridge due to 50 mph winds. And the Pahoa-Kapoho Road (Highway 132) was closed near Lava Tree State Park because a 50-foot tree had fallen and was blocking both lanes.
Streets in downtown Hilo seemed relatively unoccupied and calm during the afternoonb, but Kenoi said emergency responders are on the road looking to help those who need it.
“We’ve got everybody out in the field — Public Works, Parks and Rec, Police, Fire,” he said. “I just came in from going through downtown Hilo, checking out the businesses, stopping at the bus terminal … at Mooheau Park, down Banyan Drive, trying to determine who’s out there and what they’re doing out there, asking everybody to please clear out of coastline areas.
“The one thing about Iselle and this hurricane system is, we’ve got days, with today’s technology, to track it. So we’ve had days to share with the community information. The media has been getting out accurate, timely information. That’s given people time to get prepared, to get to the store to get their water, to fill up their vehicles. Now they can remain at home. We don’t have people out there scrambling at the last minute. That’s allowed our first responders more latitude to do their jobs.”
At about 5:30 p.m., Red Cross officials counted 855 people and 22 pets at emergency shelters islandwide. That total includes evacuees from Uncle Billy’s Hilo Bay and Kona Bay hotels and the Hilo Seaside Hotel.
As of 8:30 p.m., Hawaii Electric Light Co. had about 5,000 customers without power, according to a utility spokesman. Most of those customers are in East Hawaii, including Keaukaha and Puna.
If Iselle does deliver a direct hit to the Big Island, it’ll be the only named storm to do so in recorded history. Even though the Big Island and its public safety officials have little experience with hurricanes, they have been busy over the years with tsunami warnings and watches, earthquakes and lava inundation from volcanic activity.
“With every event, we learn more and more about what we can do better,” Oliveira said. “Even with the exercises we conduct, we identify certain things we can make improvements on. I’m sure from this event we’ll make even more improvements because we can be even better.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.