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The Kohala Cyclone: Last hurricane-strength system to make landfall on Maui in 1871

This map shows the path of tropical cyclones that passed within 50 miles of Maui County since around 1950. The green colored storms are tropical storm strength, the blue lines are tropical depression. This map does not show the path of Category 1 Hurricane Douglas that came close to making landfall on Maui last weekend. — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration graphic

Had Category 1 Hurricane Douglas made landfall on Maui, it would have been the first hurricane-strength system to strike the island in nearly 150 years.

It looked like Hurricane Douglas, packing 90 mph winds, was on a beeline for Maui last Saturday. The center of the hurricane ended up passing within 100 miles of the island and causing no major damage. But as the hurricane tracked toward Maui, it raised the question: When was the last hurricane to make landfall on Maui?

John H. Bravender, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service, said Wednesday that he did not find any hurricanes within 50 miles of Maui County in their historical database. (A meteorologist at the National Weather Service said that its data goes back to about 1950.)

There were some tropical cyclones that passed over the island: Tropical Storm Olivia in 2018 that traversed the West Maui Mountains and on to Lanai; Tropical Depression Gilma in 1998 that made landfall near Kipahulu and proceeded on a line over Haleakala to Maalaea and Lahaina; and Tropical Depression Raymond in 1983 that like Douglas just missed the north shore but rolled through Molokai.

“Offhand, we might need to go back to 1871 to the ‘Kohala Cyclone’ before finding a hurricane,” Bravender said.

He noted that several professors from the University of Hawaii published a paper in 2018 in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society describing the hurricane’s track and impacts, which were gathered from newspaper accounts, including Hawaiian language publications.

“Hurricane with a History: Hawaiian Newspapers Illuminate an 1871 Storm” was authored by a team of meteorologists and Hawaiian language, cultural and ecosystems experts from the University of Hawaii. Steven Businger, M. Puakea Nogelmeier, Pauline W.U. Chinn and Thomas Schroeder were listed as authors of the published paper.

On Aug. 9, 1871, a Category 3 hurricane left widespread destruction on Maui and Hawaii island from Hilo to Lahaina, the paper begins. The authors note that while major hurricanes like Iniki in 1992 and Iwa in 1982 struck Kauai and parts of Oahu, it has been more than a century since a major hurricane has hit Maui and Hawaii island.

The most detailed accounts of the 1871 hurricane that left major damage in Hana, Wailuku and Lahaina were published in Hawaiian language papers, the paper said.

“Then the strong, fierce presence of the wind and rain finally came, and the simple Hawaiian houses and the wooden houses of the residents here in Hana were knocked down. They were overturned and moved by the strength of that which hears not when spoken to,” a Hana resident said in Ka Nupepa Kuokoa on Aug. 26, 1871.

On Aug. 19, 1871, the same publication reported that a bridge in Wailuku was destroyed and “turned like a ship overturned by the carpenters, and it was like a mastless ship on an unlucky sail.”

A Lahaina resident said in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser on Aug. 19, 1871: “It commenced lightly on Tuesday night, with a gentle breeze, up to daylight on Wednesday, when the rain began to pour in proportion, from the westward, veering round to all points, becoming a perfect hurricane, thrashing and crashing among the trees and shrubbery, while the streams and fishponds overflowed and the land was flooded.”

Like Douglas, the 1871 hurricane approached from the east or southeast. It was moving at about 25 to 30 mph. The winds first increased from the north and northeast, and then as the storm passed, the winds became southeasterly, as was observed in Lahaina, the paper said.

It appeared to have been a compact storm, like Iniki, which devastated Kauai but left little impact to Honolulu. The 1871 hurricane generated extensive damage to Kohala, but not Kona, which got steady rain, the paper said.

“No one living in Hawaii today witnessed the destruction visited on the islands of Hawaii and Maui in the 1870s,” the authors conclude. “As a result of this long absence of hurricane impacts, a number of myths have arisen such as ‘the volcanoes protect us,’ ‘only Kauai gets hit,’ or ‘there is no Hawaiian word for hurricane.’ ”

The authors note that the latter myth is not surprising because words, such as hurricane and typhoon, arise from local words for the winds observed. They point out that David Malo defined five different levels of the kona winds. They also note that there is no Hawaiian word for tsunami.

“The Hawaiian newspaper accounts enlighten us unequivocally that a hurricane on the right track with the right steering flow will pass directly over portions of the islands of Hawaii and Maui, as if the high volcanoes are just an obstacle course, leaving a wake of destruction as it did in 1871,” the authors said in the paper’s summary and discussion.

“It is a fact that there is a real threat of hurricane landfall for all the islands of Hawaii, including Oahu,” the authors conclude. “Access to a digital archive of Hawaiian newspaper articles has helped us to better define that threat.”

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.

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