An ‘uncommon’ thunderstorm zaps county’s power grid
Thousands of lightning strikes and 60 mph wind gusts downed power lines and zapped Maui Electric Co. systems early Tuesday morning causing a countywide power outage that shutdown businesses, flooded homes and caused traffic jams and flight delays and cancelations.
“It was like a light show man, I was tripping out,” Maui Airports District Manager Marvin Moniz said Tuesday. “In 35 years at the airport, I’ve never seen that much lightning in that short period of time. That was probably record lightning.”
At 2:50 a.m. Tuesday, about 66,500 customers in Central Maui, South Maui, West Maui, Upcountry, Paia and Haiku and parts of East Maui lost power after lightning damaged electrical equipment, said MECO spokeswoman Shayna Decker. By 10 a.m. about 34,000 customers were back online and by 4 p.m. only 1,100 customers in Kahului, Paia, Haiku, Kaanapali and South Maui were without power.
Decker reported only 300 customers in pockets of Kahului and Kula remaining without power at about 9 p.m. Crews were hoping to have power restored to those last customers later in the evening.
The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Maui less than a half hour before the power outage.
At 2:27 a.m., the powerful thunderstorm was 20 miles southwest of Kihei, moving northeast at 30 mph, according to the weather service. The storm made landfall, then moved off by 3:45 a.m. after whipping the island with wind and rain and knocking out power.
The unusually powerful thunderstorm resulted from instability and copious amounts of moisture in the atmosphere, National Weather Service meteorologist Leigh Anne Eaton said Tuesday.
“Everything really came together to have the thunderstorm,” Eaton said.
She could not recall the last time the weather service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Maui County and called it uncommon. She said the county had the “strongest signature” of the storm in Hawaii, noting the thousands of lightning strikes, after it moved from Oahu on Monday.
Video posted to social media sites showed visible cracks of lighting hitting the shore off South Maui. Lahaina residents also saw the strikes with many saying it woke them up in the middle of the night.
“I thought it was a strobe light outside my house,” said Haley Smith, who lives up Lahainaluna Road. “It was rattling my windows. I woke up this morning, and my screens were blown off my windows and my fence was blown down.”
At the airport, Moniz said he saw a couple bolts of lighting hit near the airport and could hear its “crackle.” He said backup generators were able to restore power after the outage, but a surge shut them down at 3 a.m.
Two Hawaiian Airlines flights were canceled due to the storm and power outage, but the generators were back online by 6:30 a.m., “before the peak of the rush started,” Moniz said. He said Hawaiian was able to send an extra flight in for flyers affected by the cancelations.
“They recovered pretty good,” he said. “TSA was well staffed, too. Tuesday is one of our slower days so we weren’t overwhelmed with passengers like we would be on a Friday or weekend.”
Although airport operations continued smoothly, blockages on access roadways caused many passengers to miss flights, Moniz said. He said traffic lights leading to the airport remained out Tuesday evening with police directing cars. Long lines formed on all routes to the airport at Airport Access Road, Keolani Place and Kala Road.
The storm poured 5 inches of rain on some parts of the county in a 24-hour period and flooded homes and businesses.
Firefighters responded to a home on Front Street in Lahaina at 2 a.m. Tuesday that had ankle-deep flooding, Fire Services Chief Edward Taomoto said. He said another house on Anapuni Loop reported flooding a half-hour later.
Molokai and Lanai fire crews responded to downed and arcing power lines near homes late Tuesday morning, Taomoto said. He said residents were worried the power lines would catch fire.
Private schools, such as Doris Todd Christian Academy, Seabury Hall and Kamehameha Schools Maui, closed Tuesday due to the power outage, but public schools remained open, though some did not have power.
Electricity was restored to schools gradually Tuesday morning, but some still were without power in the afternoon. Maui High Principal Jamie Yap said his school was without power at 1:30 p.m., while Baldwin High and Kihei Charter had their electricity restored by 11 a.m.
Nearby Maui Waena Intermediate and Lihikai Elementary schools got power just after 8 a.m., he said.
Yap said state Department of Education officials made the call for schools to remain open at 5 a.m. Tuesday, despite the power outage.
“The premise was Maui Electric was going to provide electricity for schools to open,” Yap said. “Different schools throughout the morning had their power returned, but we weren’t that fortunate.”
Only half of the school’s 1,980 students showed up for class Tuesday morning, but by morning recess many had called their parents to be picked up, Yap said. Students were allowed to leave with their parents’ permission.
At lunchtime with the school down to a third or quarter of its enrollment, students were served a cold lunch of chips, tuna, vegetables, fruit and milk, Yap said. Classrooms were dark and some classes met outside.
“Teachers limited their instruction, if any, because of the numbers in the classroom,” he said. “We were just trying to make sure the kids are in class and are safe. The teachers did the best job they could along with the cafeteria staff and office staff. Our office was inundated this morning.
“Everybody did their share to make sure we could make it through the day.”
Yap said he had no idea when power would be restored and worried about food spoiling.
“We’re just sitting and waiting,” he said. “My biggest fear is tomorrow’s lunch because of my refrigerators and freezers. That’s a bigger issue for us right now.”
Those fast food places that had power had lines out the door Tuesday morning across Maui with people waiting to buy coffee and breakfast.
“It looked like Black Friday,” Kihei resident Arthur Criste Jr. said of Piilani Village Shopping Center. “This parking lot was crazy busy. People were trying to get gas, Starbucks was closed and everybody was going to Minit Stop for coffee.
“Starbucks didn’t open until like 9ish and as soon as they opened the line went all the way to Maui Tropics.”
Donna Tabulinar, store manager of the Minit Stop, said her store sold five to six times more coffee than she has ever sold in a day — even surpassing free coffee promotions.
“This morning, oh my god, it was so busy,” Tabulinar said Tuesday afternoon. “The line was all over the place, and the store was so full. It’s been nonstop until now.”
The store, which typically opens at 4 a.m., was one of the few open in the area. Tabulinar said she ran out of coffee cup lids and sleeves but still had backup supplies of coffee and cups.
Tabulinar said chicken, breakfast and a lot of ice were sold. She said residents were courteous and not pushy despite the long lines.
“When we opened they were very happy because of the coffee,” she said.
The heaviest rainfall that fell in the 24-hour period ending at 7:45 p.m. Tuesday was at Kahakuloa with 6.16 inches. Puu Kukui in the West Maui Mountains logged 5.75 inches and Mahinahina on the west side, 5.39 inches.
Lots of rain fell in East Maui as well with Hana Airport reporting 4.09 inches and West Wailuaiki, 3.99 inches. Wailuku logged 3.5 inches.
A rain gauge in central Molokai logged 5.13 inches while in Lanai City 4.82 inches of rain fell.
In other storm-related developments:
• The county Department of Environmental Management reported a wastewater spill of about 40,000 gallons at the Wailuku Pump Station off Kahului Beach Road. The overflow was reported at 6 a.m. and was stopped by 6:45 a.m.
When the power went out, the emergency generator for the station was inoperable due to mechanical issues, county officials said. Wastewater flowed over a dirt access road and into the ocean. The spill site was cleaned and disinfected; bacteriological tests were being conducted; and warning signs were posted. The state Department of Health urged the public to stay out of the waters north of Kahului Harbor from Kanaloa Avenue to Linekona Street until tests were completed and warning signs taken down.
• A Brown Water Advisory was posted for Maui by the Health Department’s Clean Water Branch on Tuesday morning, due to the heavy rains. The public was advised to stay out of floodwaters and storm water runoff due to possible contaminants from overflowing cesspools and sewer manholes as well as runoff with pesticides, animal carcasses and fecal matter, pathogens, chemicals and debris. Not all coastal areas may be impacted but if the water is brown, don’t go in, the branch said.
• A county Department of Water Supply crew began repairing a booster pump station Tuesday night that failed due to the storm. The department requested that residents and businesses in Paia, Kuau and Skill Village immediately conserve water until further notice.
A water tanker will be placed at Paia Gym on Baldwin Avenue for residents. For any water-related problems or questions, call the department’s 24-hour service line at 270-7633.
• Haleakala National Park will be open for sunrise today, but the Hosmer Grove Campground and Trail are closed until further notice due to storm damage, officials said. Tent camping in the crater has been canceled until further notice, and cabin camping permits will be issued only if hikers are properly prepared. In the Kipahulu District, the Pools at Ohe’o are closed due to extreme flooding as is the last mile of the Pipiwai Trail due to hazardous tree assessment and removal. The Kipahulu campgrounds are open.
• Piilani Highway near Kalepa was closed due to a rockslide, the county said. Flooding also closed the highway from Kalepa to Kaupo, though the route remained accessible to emergency vehicles.
• The county’s Kaunoa Senior Services was closed Tuesday, the county said.
• UH-Maui College canceled some Tuesday morning classes at the Kahului campus but resumed them at 10 a.m.
• The Division of Motor Vehicles and Licensing office in Pukalani was closed because the county was unable to connect with the state database, the county reported at noon.
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.