HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaii residents prepared for what could be the first hurricane to hit the state in more than 20 years as weather officials said Wednesday that an approaching storm appears to have strengthened and will likely maintain its speed as it heads toward the islands.
Hurricane Iselle loomed about 600 miles east of Hilo, spinning at about 85 mph, forecasters said. It previously had been expected to weaken significantly before reaching land.
The storm is expected to lash the Big Island on Thursday with damaging winds, heavy rains and high surf. It's now on track to remain hurricane-strength or weaken only to a strong tropical storm, said meteorologist Derek Wroe.
Hurricane Julio, meanwhile, swirled closely behind at about 75 mph. Forecasters expect it to slowly strengthen and pass north of the Big Island sometime this weekend.
Lixion Avlia, senior hurricane forecaster with National Hurricane Center in Miami, said the Hurricane Julio remained too far away to accurately predict its path.
Hawaii has been directly hit by hurricanes only three times since 1950, though the region has had 147 tropical cyclones over that time. The last time Hawaii was hit with a tropical storm or hurricane was in 1992, when Hurricane Iniki killed six people and destroyed more than 1,400 homes in Kauai, said Meteorologist Eric Lau.
"We've been lucky so far," he said. "So we just need to really take this threat seriously and make sure everybody is prepared."
The two Category 1 hurricanes, the lowest-level classification, have disrupted tourism, prompted flash flood warnings and led to school closures. Gov. Neil Abercrombie, meanwhile, signed an emergency proclamation allowing officials to tap into a disaster fund set aside by the state Legislature.
For travelers, Hawaiian Airlines waived reservation change fees and fare differences for passengers who needed to alter travel plans Thursday and Friday because of the storms. Hawaiian Airlines spokeswoman Ann Botticelli said hundreds of inquires poured in from customers seeking to change their flights.
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