By JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER
HONOLULU (AP) – Hurricane Lane has weakened as it approaches Hawaii but was still expected to pack a wallop, forecasters said Wednesday, as people hurried to buy water and other supplies and the Navy moved its ships to safety.
The National Weather Service said tropical-storm-force winds could begin as early as Wednesday afternoon on the Big Island.
“We’re planning on boarding up all our windows and sliding doors,” Napua Puaoi of Wailuku, Maui, said after buying 16 pieces of plywood from Home Depot. “As soon as my husband comes home – he has all the power tools.”
The hurricane was about 305 miles (490 kilometers) south of Kailua-Kona and moving northwest toward other islands.
Meteorologist Chevy Chevalier in Honolulu said its winds had slowed overnight from 160 mph to 155 mph (259 to 250 kph), prompting a downgrade from a Category 5 to a Category 4 hurricane.
He said it may drop to a Category 3 by Thursday afternoon but that 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.”
With winds anticipated to 130 mph (209 kph), the hurricane could cause catastrophic damage.
Residents rushed to stores to stock up on bottled water, ramen, toilet paper and other supplies as they faced the threat of heavy rain, flash flooding and high surf.
Public schools on the Big Island and in Maui County closed Wednesday until further notice.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige said employees on Hawaii and Maui islands who work in disaster response as well as in hospitals and prisons were required to report to their jobs.
Puaoi said Home Depot opened at 6 a.m., 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.”
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.
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 said the last time her family boarded up the windows of their home was in 1992 during Hurricane Iniki.
“We have neighbors all around our house and a lot of their items are just outside, not properly secured,” she said. “If the wind was to hit us, we’ll have a lot of damage.”
She was 12 when Iniki hit.
“When it did happen, I just remember, pandemonium, it was all out craziness,” she said.
Kauai resident Mike Miranda was 12 when Hurricane Iniki devastated the island. He recalled that Iniki’s turn into the islands was sudden.
“I remember how very little rain fell. But I remember the wind being the strongest force of nature I’ve ever witnessed and probably the scariest sounds I’ve ever heard in my life,” he said.