Above-average hurricane season forecast

Expert: Typical year might bring four to five tropical cyclones to the Central Pacific, but this year could bring eight

Jon Jelsema, senior forecaster and hurricane specialist for the National Weather Service in Honolulu, speaks to about 20 West Maui residents Thursday night at Lahaina Civic Center amphitheater. -- The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

Jon Jelsema, senior forecaster and hurricane specialist for the National Weather Service in Honolulu, speaks to about 20 West Maui residents Thursday night at Lahaina Civic Center amphitheater. -- The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

LAHAINA — The National Weather Service is expecting an “above-average year” for tropical cyclones, which could destroy huge sections of Honoapiilani Highway and isolate West Maui residents from the rest of the island for months — possibly a year, a senior forecaster and hurricane specialist said.

“Maui is extremely susceptible,” Jon Jelsema said Thursday night at Lahaina Civic Center’s amphitheater. “A Category 4 or 5 hurricane is going to be almost complete destruction. You’re going to see almost every single tree out here either knocked down or uprooted. All the homes that don’t have concrete foundations are going to be destroyed, even well-constructed ones.

“And it’s not just the wind; it’s also the rain, storm surge and flooding that could affect low-lying areas close to the coast. It’s just a really, really ominous outlook if something happened.”

El Nino conditions are slightly favored, which means a busy hurricane season that officially begins June 1 and ends Nov. 30. A typical year for tropical cyclones in the Central Pacific Basin is four to five storms, but this year could reach up to eight, Jelsema said.

NOAA’s Central Pacific Hurricane Center will announce its hurricane season outlook Wednesday. The last El Nino year was two years ago, which set records in every hurricane season category.

The Central Pacific region recorded 16 tropical cyclones, 15 named storms, nine hurricanes and four major hurricanes in 2015. It also was the first time in history that three major hurricanes — Kilo, Ignacio and Jimena — existed at the same time in the Pacific east of the International Date Line.

“We’ve been lucky for a while now, but eventually one of these systems is going to come and hit the islands,” Jelsema told about 20 West Maui residents.

West Maui, and the rest of the state, is most vulnerable to hurricanes from the south, where warmer waters increase the likelihood of intense thunderstorms and tropical cyclones, Jelsema said. Hurricanes with a weak upper-level ridge can be curved north and toward the islands.

“That’s exactly what happened with Iniki,” he said of the powerful hurricane that hit Hawaii in 1992. “The models didn’t handle that well in 1992, so we thought at the time it was going to chug westward and it didn’t. So anything that’s tracking by to the south, you got to be on guard because that’s the one that could do damage.”

If a Category 4 or 5 hurricane were to hit the state, not only would the west side of Maui be isolated, but Honolulu Harbor would be compromised.

State emergency officials projected that the port, which imports more food than any other in the state, would be shut down for 19 days for dredging equipment to travel from the Mainland to complete repairs, Jelsema said. The harbor has only enough food and water at any given time for six days for everyone on Oahu.

“Now, all of a sudden, you have 13 days where you don’t have any food or water to resupply,” he said. “That’s something to keep in mind as you prepare for hurricane season. You want to have a stash of food or water that’s going to carry you for a few weeks.”

Honoapiilani Highway, which floods during normal storms, would be washed out in several sections, Jelsema said. A recent fire in Atlanta that collapsed a major city thoroughfare took about two months to repair, he said.

“That was on the Mainland where they have more resources,” he said. “It would take Maui months — it might take over a year depending on how bad the damage was.”

Electricity also would be lost for weeks, possibly months, Jelsema said. He added that Category 5 sustained winds are greater than 155 mph and could blow off the top floors of apartments.

“I can guarantee you that we’ll have above-average cyclone activity this year,” he said.

Tropical cyclones can go through five stages during in a life cycle: tropical disturbance, depression, storm, hurricane and post-tropical depression or remnant low. A depression has maximum sustained winds less than 39 mph, while a hurricane has winds over 74 mph.

Hurricanes have a diameter of 100 to 300 miles, and their movement is guided by surface winds, other weather systems and warm ocean currents. Hurricanes lose strength when making landfall or from wind shear, moving into cooler water and cooler air.

Tropical storm and hurricane watches are usually issued 48 hours before tropical-storm-force winds are expected to arrive. Warnings are issued 36 hours before.

Damage is caused by high winds, heavy rainfall, flooding, large breaking waves, high seas and storm surges. Surges have the greatest potential for loss of life and have historically claimed 9 out of 10 victims in hurricanes.

Jelsema advised residents to evacuate areas exposed to storm surging and to have enough food and water for at least a few weeks. He recommended covering all windows and doors along with installing hurricane straps to reinforce roofs.

“You can have your canned goods party at the end of the season,” he said. “Have all your friends over and break out those . . . canned vegetables. It’s better to be prepared because you can always eat it after the season’s done.”

The West Maui Taxpayers Association, the Maui Emergency Management Agency, the Pacific Disaster Center and the state Emergency Management Agency hosted Jelsema’s presentation. The groups are working to develop a disaster plan customized for West Maui, which is vulnerable to being isolated from Maui Memorial Medical Center and Kahului Airport in Central Maui.

Officials said that frequent road closures, fires and flooding have highlighted the need for community preparedness and planning. The groups began meeting monthly through the Hawaiian Hazards and Resilience Program in February to cover topics such as earthquakes, tsunamis and personal preparedness.

“The issue with government resources is that day-to-day living consumes most of it,” said Charnan Carroll, a staff specialist for the Maui Emergency Management Agency. “Those of us in emergency management see very little money to create a safe environment we wish we could have, so you guys are the foundation.”

Joe Pluta, vice president of the taxpayers association, said that he was grateful to residents attending the presentation because they can be part of the solution. Residents have banded together after being told by state and county officials “you’re on your own,” he said.

“We’ve been told that a lot,” Pluta said. “We know we’re isolated, so we’re building our own hospital and identifying all the problems we have and making solutions so our community can save lives.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

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The five most damaging Central Pacific hurricanes since 1950 were:

• Hurricane Iniki (1992): over $3 billion

• Hurricane Iselle (2014): $325 million

• Hurricane Iwa (1982): $250 million

• Hurricane Dot (1959): $6 million

• Hurricane Estelle (1986): $2 million

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