Hawaii escaped its first hurricane strike in 22 years as Iselle was downgraded to a tropical storm just before making landfall at the Big Island.

Iselle, bearing winds of 60 miles (96 kilometers) per hour, was 80 miles south of Hilo at 1 a.m. local time, the U.S. Central Pacific Hurricane Center said. The system, traveling west, was previously a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, according to the center.

The system, which grounded flights, shut tourist areas and closed government offices, would have been the first hurricane on record to strike the Big Island, according to Commodity Weather Group LLC. Hurricane Iniki was the last hurricane to hit the state, landing as a Category 4 storm in September 1992, killing six and causing $2 billion in damage, Jeff Masters, founder of Weather Underground, wrote in his blog.

“Now that the storm is interacting with the island it is weakening and is down to tropical storm strength,” David Streit, a meteorologist at CWG in Bethesda, Maryland, said today by e-mail. The “main impact will still be localized flooding and minor wind damage.”

Hawaiians are also watching Hurricane Julio, behind Iselle. Julio had top winds of 120 mph as of 11 p.m. local time and was traveling west-northwest, according to the center. It was 970 miles east of Hilo. Julio will probably pass north of Hawaii on Aug. 10 or Aug. 11, according to Donald Keeney, a forecaster at MDA Weather Services in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Iselle will dump 2 inches (5 centimeters) to as much as 20 inches of rain, Keeney said today by e-mail.Hawaii closed all government offices and schools today, Governor Neil Abercrombie said on his website.

Fees Waived

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc.’s storm preparations included shutting off gas lines to outdoor tiki torches and moving food and beverage service indoors, Stephanie Dowling, a spokeswoman for the company, said by e-mail. It also waived cancellation fees for guests whose travel plans are affected by the storms.

Island Air scrubbed all flights today and intends to return to its regular schedule tomorrow, the airline said on its website. It is owned by Oracle Corp. founder Larry Ellison’s Ohana Airline Holdings LLC.

Hawaiian Airlines Inc. moved up a Maui-Los Angeles flight by almost 5 hours yesterday and canceled evening flights in Hilo, Kona and Maui, the company said in an e-mailed statement.

The storms are striking during one of Hawaii’s peak tourism seasons, from June through August, when schools are shut for vacation, Ken Rewick, vice president of flight operations for Hawaiian Airlines, said Aug. 6 by phone from Honolulu. A shorter spike in visitors occurs in December and January, he said.

Taking Precautions

The U.S. National Park Service close its Hawai’i Volcanoes visitor center and museum yesterday. Backcountry areas and roads in the area were also shut in the park that receives about 1.6 million tourists per year. The state’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife closed its hiking trails, wildlife sanctuaries and reserves on the Big Island and Maui.

A tropical storm warning was issued for Maui County including the islands of Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe, according to the local National Weather Service office. The warning was also issued for Oahu and the Kauai County including the islands of Kauau and Niihau. A hurricane warning was in effect for the Hawaii County, the service said on its website.

Storm Outlook

“Swells generated by Iselle is producing very large and damaging mainly along east and south facing shores of the Big Island,” according to the service. “This damaging surf will continue into Friday.”

Julio may drift north and miss the islands over the weekend, hurricane center track forecasts show. Computer models show it curving to the north and losing strength as it nears the island chain, said Paul Walker, a meteorologist at AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania.

Hurricane Julio “should still spread some heavier rains across much of the state,” MDA’s Keeney said. “However, there should not be any major damage to the state from that system.”

It is rare for two storms to threaten Hawaii so close together.

Storms tend to “come in clusters, but this close is not typical,” Rewick, said. “Julio seems to be taking a more northerly track, which for the islands is helpful because it gets up into the higher, cooler water and saps the energy out of them.”

Hurricane History

Only two hurricanes, tropical systems with winds of at least 74 mph, have made direct strikes on the state since 1949, Masters said. One of those was Hurricane Iniki and the other was Dot in 1959. Both made landfall in Kauai. No tropical storm has hit the Big Island since 1958, and it’s had no hurricane strike on record, he said.

Near Japan, Typhoon Halong, a Category 1 storm with winds of 86 mph, was moving north 350 miles south-southeast of Sasebo, Japan, the U.S. Navy Joint Typhoon Warning Center said.

“It’s already bringing heavy rains to Japan and it’s moving very slowly, so they are going to get a long period of heavy rains through Saturday,” Masters said in a telephone interview. “There could be significant flooding damage in southern Japan.”

–With assistance from Tsuyoshi Inajima in Tokyo.

Topics Catastrophe USA Natural Disasters Aviation Hurricane Hawaii Japan