Lane weakens to tropical storm but fears of flash floods in Hawaii with rain forecast

A powerful hurricane that threatened Hawaii for a week rapidly disintegrated to become a tropical storm south of Honolulu. But meteorologists warned heavy rains could still wallop the islands with flash flooding and punishing winds.

Lane dumped nearly one metre of rain on parts of the Big Island of Hawaii over the past two days, forcing residents to flee their homes in waist-high water and officials to clear a series of landslides.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said people need to be vigilant and not let their guard down. But he was happy to hear the storm deteriorated.

"The good news is Lane got weak and fell apart. We dodged a bullet," he said at a news conference on Friday.

Lane roared toward the island chain early this week as the most powerful type of hurricane measured: a Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. That meant it was likely to cause catastrophic damage with winds 252 km/h or above.

But upper-level winds known as shear swiftly tore the storm apart. By late Friday, the National Weather Service said Lane had maximum sustained winds of 110 km/h as it slowly twisted west about 240 km south of Honolulu.

The outer bands of the hurricane dumped as much as one metre of rain in 48 hours on the mostly rural Big Island. The main town of Hilo, population 43,000, was flooded Friday with waist-high water as landslides shut down roads.

'Inundated with mud-water'

Margaret Collins, 69, woke up Thursday night to sounds in her Hilo backyard.

"So I got up out of bed and looked out my bedroom window and saw water 3 feet high gushing past my window," she said. "And that's when I realized I was standing in water."

Collins called a neighbour for help, who crawled through bushes to bring her out of the house, half-carrying her as she clutched a plastic bag with medication.

The water knocked down a cement wall and lifted her truck out of the carport, sending it toward her neighbour's house, she said.

"My house is completely inundated with mud-water," said Collins, who was told the damage wouldn't be covered by insurance. She hopes she can get federal assistance.

Elsewhere on the Big Island, the National Guard and firefighters rescued six people and a dog from a flooded home, while five California tourists were rescued from another house.

A different type of evacuation took place on Oahu, the state's most populated island.

Lane dumped torrential rains that inundated the Big Island. The city of Hilo, population 43,000, was flooded with waist-high water. (Hollyn Johnson/Hawaii Tribune-Herald/AP)

Officials with the Department of Land and Natural Resources transferred about 2,000 rare Hawaiian snails from a mountain marsh to offices in downtown Honolulu. A staffer will spend the night and place ice around their cages in case the air conditioning goes out.

Some of the snails are the last of their kind, including one named George that's the sole remaining Achatinella apexfulva in captivity. Staff members are trying to keep him safe in case he's able to reproduce.

Wildfires, heavy rain still threaten some areas

As flooding hit the Big Island, brush fires broke out in areas of Maui and Oahu susceptible to flames.

A man posted a video on Instagram showing flames several stories high starting to envelop parked cars.

Joseph Azam, who was vacationing in Maui with family and friends, hoped rain from the hurricane arrived before the flames did.

"Trying to figure which comes first, the fire or the rain," said Azam, who's from Oakland, Calif., and is staying at a hotel. "We're praying the rain arrives soon."

Others prayed for the rain to stay away.

In Waikiki, the man-made Ala Wai Canal is likely to flood if predicted rains arrive, said Ray Alexander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The canal marks the northern boundary of the Waikiki tourist district. Worries that it could overflow in heavy rains have prompted efforts to reduce the risk.

"The canal has flooded in the past, and I believe it's safe to say based on the forecast of rainfall it's likely to flood again — the impacts of which we aren't prepared to say at this time," Alexander said.

At the peak of its power, tropical storm Lane was a Category 5 hurricane. This photo was taken from aboard the International Space Station earlier this week. (@astro_ricky/NASA/Reuters)

Beachgoers ignore warnings

Not everyone feared the storm.

Swimmers and surfers ignored warnings from authorities and plunged into powerful waves at Oahu's famed Waikiki Beach, which was closed.

Emergency officials said repeatedly over loudspeakers: "Please get out of the water! It's very dangerous!" Honolulu mayor Caldwell pleaded with tourists that they were putting themselves in danger as the storm churned closer.

Crystal Bowden, a tourist from California, watched powerful waves crash against cliffs on Oahu's southeast coast.

"I came in to visit, got here just in time for the hurricane," Bowden said. "We're kind of excited."

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said about 2,000 people were in shelters, mostly in Oahu. Honolulu's shelters would stay open until midday Saturday, Caldwell said.

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.

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