HONOLULU - Hurricane Lane churned closer toward the heart of the Hawaiian islands on Friday as it weakened into a Category 2 storm while still lashing the Big Island with raging surf, torrential rains, and catastrophic flooding, weather officials said.
The storm, with sustained winds topping 100 miles (161 km) per hour, was forecast to make its nearest approach to land just west of the island chain over the weekend, bringing hurricane conditions to Maui and the U.S. state's most populous island, Oahu, starting Friday night.
Farther north, a tropical storm watch was posted for the island of Kauai.
"If you're in Hawaii, it's critical that you heed the warnings of local officials and stay aware of your surroundings," Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) chief Brock Long wrote on Twitter.
By Friday morning, more than 2 feet (60 cm) of rain had fallen in a 36-hour period on the Big Island's windward side, where the National Weather Service reported "catastrophic flooding" and wind gusts peaking at 67 mph (108 kph).
A number of structures on the island of Hawaii, popularly known as the Big Island, were destroyed and some residents were reported to be fleeing their homes, said Melissa Dye, a Weather Service spokeswoman in Honolulu.
Fire department personnel have conducted several rescues of people stranded by high water on the Big Island since Thursday, mostly around its biggest city, Hilo, said Kelly Wooten, a Hawaii County civil defense spokeswoman.
Overnight, the National Guard and fire department rescued 6 people and their dog, and 2 hikers were rescued by helicopter near the camping destination of Waimanu Valley, Wooten said. There were no injuries.
She said 2 Hilo-area neighborhoods were evacuated.
'READY TO LEAVE'
Flash flooding and mudslides on the Big Island have forced a number of road closures, and Governor David Ige urged residents to avoid any unnecessary travel.
On Oahu, where 70 percent of Hawaii's 1.4 million residents live, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell told the Weather Channel that the city has moved its emergency-response equipment to higher ground for the time being.
He said Honolulu, the state's capital and largest city, is especially vulnerable to floods and landslides because it is partly ringed by mountains.
"We have asked our residents in these areas where they know it floods to be ready to leave," Caldwell said, adding that 1,100 people were staying in emergency shelters throughout the city.
Evacuations were also under way on parts of Molokai and Maui islands.
In Maui, a fast-growing wildfire forced the evacuation of homes and an emergency shelter set up for the storm in Lahaina, where no rain was yet falling, officials said. One woman was hospitalized with burns. The cause of the blaze was not immediately known.
Besides upheaval for hundreds of thousands of residents living in low-lying flood-prone areas, the storm has spoiled vacation plans throughout the islands.
Australian tourist Nicole Paterson, 27, said she was forced to cancel a birthday outing to snorkel with sea turtles along Oahu's North Shore on Friday, and a visit to the Disney resort in Ko Olina.
While Lane was downgraded on Friday to Category 2 on the 5-step Saffir-Simpson scale, it still packed maximum sustained winds of 105 mph (170 kph), the weather service said.
As of 11 a.m. Hawaii time (5 p.m. EDT/2100 GMT), Lane was moving north at 5 mph (8 kph) and was about 150 miles (245 km) south of Honolulu, the weather service said. It was forecast to turn west on Saturday, lose more of its punch and move more quickly.
The latest predictions from the weather service's Central Pacific Hurricane Center show the eye of the storm glancing past Maui and several other islands on Friday on its way toward Oahu.
In addition to "life-threatening and damaging surf," the weather service has warned that storm surges could raise water levels 3 to 5 feet (1 to 1.5 meters) above normal along the western shores of the Big Island.
Governor Ige has urged residents to set aside a 14-day supply of water, food, and medicine. All public schools, University of Hawaii campuses and nonessential government offices on the islands of Oahu and Kauai were closed at least through Friday.
All harbors have been ordered closed to incoming vessels, and the U.S. Navy moved most of its fleet out of Pearl Harbor, where ships could provide aid after the storm.
Oil company Par Pacific Holdings Inc said it had shut down its 93,500 barrel-per-day refinery in Kapolei. - with additional reporting by Diane Craft in Kailua, Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Makini Brice in Washington, Alex Dobzinskis in Los Angeles and Gabriella Borter in New York