HILO, Hawaii — Merchants boarded up shop windows Wednesday along Hilo Bay, and shoppers snatched supplies of food and water from grocery store shelves as what could be the first hurricane to hit Hawaii in a quarter-century neared the island.
Hurricane Madeline had weakened, but it remained on track to hit Hawaii’s Big Island early Thursday, the National Weather Service said.
Officials urged residents to expect hurricane conditions and to take steps to protect themselves and their property.
“Hopefully our roofs stay on, and our houses don’t float way or get blown away,” said Big Island resident Mitzi Bettencourt, who boarded up walls of glass windows at her brother’s oceanfront home. “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, are we going to get flattened or what?’ “
Elsewhere, the National Hurricane Center said Tropical Storm Hermine had formed in the Gulf of Mexico and was centered about 400 miles from Tampa, Florida. It was expected to pick up speed and approach the northwest Florida coast Thursday afternoon. A warning was dropped about a tropical depression that had been moving toward North Carolina.
In Hawaii, Peggy Beckett, a retiree and beekeeper, stopped at a Hilo supermarket to pick up onion bagels, cheese, cold cuts and salad to add to her canned food at home. She also has a cooler with ice plus a portable burner and batteries to get her through the storm.
Noting the lines of people at the market, Beckett said people were getting prepared but weren’t panicking.
“There’s always a lot of disbelief on the island that the storms will really be as big and bad as forecast,” she said, noting that she and her partner had taken precautions to protect their beehives.
Hurricane Madeline has been downgraded to a Category 1 storm. It was about 140 miles southeast of Hilo early Wednesday — with maximum sustained winds of 80 mph — and on track to skirt or hit the southern edge of the Big Island, an area that features ranches, small towns and Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park.
Bettencourt manages several vacation rental properties, and her own home sits a few blocks from the ocean. She and her neighbors were stocking their pantries, stowing lawn furniture and preparing for power outages.
The previous hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii was Hurricane Iniki in 1992, which hit Kauai, Chevalier said.
A second Pacific hurricane, called Lester, was far from Hawaii, and expected to weaken to a tropical storm as it passes the state.
“There are some residences in Maui County which are on the periphery of Madeline right now,” said Ray Tanabe, a meteorologist with the weather service. “They’re not going to see the heavy rains and winds that the Big Island is seeing, but we don’t want them to be complacent and not worry about Lester.”
Gov. David Ige has issued an emergency proclamation for both storms, allowing the state to quickly spend money. Schools were closed and about a dozen facilities were outfitted as emergency shelters.
President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Oahu this week. The White House was tracking the weather but didn’t anticipate changing Obama’s schedule.
The Hawaiian islands of Maui, Molokai and Lanai were under a tropical storm watch, but there were no alerts for Oahu or Kauai.
On the Big Island, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was closing some areas, including a coastal lava viewing site.
The U.S. Coast Guard asked crews of barges and ships to prepare to leave Hilo Harbor and told ocean-going vessels to seek sheltered waters until storm conditions subside.
Bussewitz reported from Honolulu. AP writer Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.