1871 Hawaii Hurricane Strike Shows Lane’s Imminent Danger Isn’t Unprecedented

August 23, 2018 · 0 comments

Powerful Hurricane Lane is forecast to skirt if not directly hit Hawaii as a slowly weakening major hurricane today and Friday. Its track is unusual: most Central Pacific hurricanes either steer well south of the tropical paradise or fall apart upon approaching the islands. But a recent paper in the Bulletin of the AMS reveals that such intense tropical cyclones menace Hawaii more frequently than previously thought.

Hurricane Lane as of Thursday morning local time was packing sustained winds of 130 mph with gusts topping 160. Its expected track (below) is northward toward the middle islands today and early tomorrow, followed by a sharp left turn later Friday. When that left hook occurs will determine the severity of the impacts on Maui as well as Oahu, home to Hawaii’s capital and largest city, Honolulu. Although Lane is expected to slowly weaken due to increasing wind shear aloft, it appears that the Big Island of Hawaii, Maui, Molokai, and Oahu will be raked at a minimum by tropical storm winds gusting 55-70 mph, pounding surf, and heavy, potentially flooding rain. Hurricane conditions on these islands also are possible.

Three-day track forecast for Hurricane Lane's approach to Hawaii.
Three-day track forecast for Hurricane Lane’s approach to Hawaii (Central Pacific Hurricane Center).

The last major hurricane to affect the islands with more than swells and heavy surf was Hurricane Iniki in 1992. It was passing well south of the islands when an approaching upper-air trough brought in steering flow out of the south, and Iniki made a right turn toward the western islands while intensifying into a strong Category 4 hurricane. It slammed directly into the garden island of Kauai with average winds of 145 mph and extreme gusts that damaged or destroyed more than 90 percent of the homes and buildings on the island. Iniki obliterated  Kauai’s lush landscape, seen in its full splendor in such movies as Jurassic Park, which was filming there as the storm bore down.

The only other known direct hit on Hawaii was by 1959’s Hurricane Dot, which was a minimal Category 1 storm–the winds barely reaching threshold hurricane intensity of 74 mph when its center crossed Kauai. Without any prior record of major hurricane landfall, Iniki was not just rare, it was considered unprecedented.

Until now.

More than a century before Iniki, a major hurricane crashed into the Big Island, its intense right-front quadrant passing directly over neighboring Maui, causing widespread devastation on both islands. Its discovery is outlined in Hurricane with a History: Hawaiian Newspapers Illuminate an 1871 Storm, which details the narrative thanks to an explosion of literacy on the islands in the mid 19th century, which led to hundreds of local language newspapers that published eyewitness accounts of the storm.

Map showing the reconstructed track of the Hawaii hurricane across the eastern islands of Hawaii and Maui on 9 Aug 1871. Labeled red circles indicate the approximate time and location of the core of the storm. Green shading shows terrain altitude every 2,000 ft (610 m).
Map showing the reconstructed track of the Hawaii hurricane across the eastern islands of Hawaii and Maui on 9 Aug 1871. Labeled red circles indicate the approximate time and location of the core of the storm. Green shading shows terrain altitude every 2,000 ft (610 m).

The new historical research, published in the January 2018 BAMS, found unequivocal evidence of an intense hurricane that struck August 9, 1871, causing widespread destruction from Hilo on the eastern side of the Big Island to Lahaina on Maui’s west side. A Hawaiian-language newspaper archive of more than 125,000 pages digitized and now made publicly available along with translated articles contained account after account of incredible damage that led the paper’s authors to surmise that at least a Category 3 if not a Category 4 hurricane hit that day.

The paper’s analysis is put forth as “the first to rely on the written record from an indigenous people” of storms, droughts, volcanic eruptions, and other extreme natural events. Accounts published in Hawaiian newspapers create a living history of the 1871 hurricane’s devastation, as recounted in the paper:

“On the island of Hawaii, the hurricane first struck the Hāmākua coast and Waipi‘o valley. The following is from a reader’s letter from Waipi‘o dated 16 August 1871:”

At about 7 or 8 AM it commenced to blow and it lasted for about an hour and a half, blowing right up the valley. There were 28 houses blown clean away and many more partially destroyed. There is hardly a  tree  or  bush  of  any  kind  standing  in  the  valley (Pacific Commercial Advertiser on 19 August 1871).

“An eyewitness from Kohala on Hawaii Island wrote the following:”

The greatest fury was say from 9 to 9:30 or 9:45, torrents of rain came with it. The district is swept as with the besom of destruction. About 150 houses were blown down. A mango tree was snapped as a pipe stem, just above the surface of the ground. Old solid Kukui trees, which had stood the storms of a score of years were torn up and pitched about like chaff. Dr. Wright’s mill and sugarhouse, the trash and manager’s residence, were all strewn over the ground (Ke Au Okoa on 24 August 1871).

“On Maui, newspaper reports document that Hāna, Wailuku, and Lahaina were particularly hard-hit. A writer in Hāna described the storm:”

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 Hāna were knocked down. They were overturned and moved by the strength of that which hears not when spoken to (Ka Nupepa Kuokoa on 26 August 1871).

“In Wailuku the bridge was destroyed:”

… the bridge turned like a ship overturned by the carpenters, and it was like a mast-less ship on an unlucky sail.” (Ka Nupepa Kuokoa on 19 August 1871).

“From Lahaina came the following report:”

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 (Pacific Commercial Advertiser on 19 August 1871).

The BAMS paper concludes that the 1871 hurricane was “a compact storm, similar to Iniki.” Honolulu escaped damaging winds or rain despite such a close encounter.

Because such historical records have been unnoticed for so long, the paper notes “a number of myths have arisen such as ‘the volcanoes protect us,’ ‘only Kauai gets hit,’ or ‘there is no Hawaiian word for hurricane.’”

Today’s powerful Hurricane Lane and the newfound historical records go a long way to dispelling these misconceptions about the threat of hurricanes in the Hawaiian Islands.