HONOLULU — Hawaii residents furiously stocked up on essentials as two hurricanes churned toward the islands, prompting flash flood warnings, closing schools and disrupting travel plans across the islands.
Hurricane Iselle loomed about 600 miles east of the Big Island early Wednesday, spinning at 85 mph. Weather officials predicted it would weaken but said it could strike the city of Hilo Thursday with tropical storm-force winds of about 50 mph.
Hurricane Julio swirled closely behind at about 75 mph. Forecasters expected the storm to strengthen and pass north of the Hawaiian Islands sometime this weekend.
"Hawaii should be more interested now in Hurricane Iselle, which is closer," said Lixion Avlia, senior hurricane forecaster with National Hurricane Center in Miami. He said Hurricane Julio remained too far away to accurately predict its path.
Hawaii has been directly hit by hurricanes only three times since 1950, though the region has had 147 tropical cyclones over that time. The last time Hawaii was hit with a tropical storm or hurricane was in 1992, when Hurricane Iniki killed six people and destroyed more than 1,400 homes in Kauai, said Eric Lau, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Honolulu.
"We've been lucky so far," he said. "So we just need to really take this threat seriously and make sure everybody is prepared."
Residents have seemed to heed that call this week. A grocery store in the coastal Oahu community of Waianae opened 15 minutes early Tuesday because people were already lined up to buy supplies. Bottled water and cans of Spam and Vienna Sausage flew off the shelves, said Charlie Gustafson, general manager of Tamura's Supermarket.
Judy Castillo of Oahu, meanwhile, pushed a cart with two cases of water and other items from a drug store to her car. "Two storms in a row? It's like, Hello?" she said.
The storms have prompted public schools on the Big Island, Maui, Molokai and Lanai to close Thursday, state education officials said.
For its part, Hawaiian Airlines will waive reservation change fees and fare differences for passengers who need to alter travel plans because of the storms. The airline said fees will be waived for those who are ticketed to travel Thursday and Friday. They will be allowed to change reservations for flights through Aug. 12.
Chris Pruett of Waikiki was anticipating the silver lining that comes from bad weather: good waves.
"We're just getting water and preparing ourselves, too, because it could be bad," he said. "Of course we're not looking for a storm ... but it tends to generate good waves."
The clustered storms are rare but not unexpected in years with a developing El Nino, a change in ocean temperature that affects weather around the world.
In the Atlantic Ocean, Tropical Storm Bertha continues to weaken as it moves north, posing no direct threat to the U.S. East Coast. The storm's maximum sustained winds decreased to near 50 mph Tuesday evening with even more weakening expected over the next two days.Comment on this story
On Sunday, the storm buffeted parts of the Bahamas and the Turks & Caicos with rain and gusty winds, after passing over the Dominican Republic. Earlier, it dumped rain on Puerto Rico.
Ahead of this year's hurricane season, weather officials warned that the wide swath of the Pacific Ocean that includes Hawaii could see four to seven tropical cyclones this year.
In preparation, some people in Hawaii are making sure to vote early in the primary elections, which are Saturday. The elections include several marquee races, including primaries for U.S. Senate, governor and a U.S. House seat covering urban Honolulu.
Associated Press Writers Doug Esser in Seattle and Oskar Garcia in Honolulu contributed to this report.