HONOLULU - A hurricane that beat the odds was poised to roar across Hawaii on Thursday, blasting the island paradise with heavy rains, damaging winds and hammering surf. Hurricane Iselle was forecast to become the first hurricane to smash into the islands in more than two decades. A couple of days later, Hurricane Julio could be the second one.
Forecasters had expected Iselle to fall prey to the long trip across the Pacific and the region's strong upper air flow that is capable of breaking up some of the mightiest storms. But Iselle was unrelenting, so the run on bottled water, milk and toilet paper is in full swing.
"The real effects will probably be felt on the Big Island starting around noon (6 p.m. ET Thursday)," Norman Hui, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Honolulu, told USA TODAY. "The worst of it will be tonight. This storm is holding together pretty well."
Not everyone was in a panic, though. The Big Island, the state's most easterly island, was on track to take the biggest hit. In Hilo, the island's biggest city, the skies were overcast but there was no rain Thursday morning. The winds were mild. At one 7-11 in Hilo, a clerk named Lee Anne, 38, said the store has plenty of bottled water.
"I'm kind of skeptical about it," she said. "We've had so many warnings before, but not much has happened."
Honolulu is on Oahu, a smaller but more populated island that includes Honolulu. Oahu should avoid the worst of the storm, Hui said. But tropical storm conditions could bring havoc overnight and Friday. Long lines formed at some local stores, and bottled water and other hunker-down items flew off shelves.
Radji Tolentino, a Realtor in Ewa Beach on Oahu, said he grabbed the last box of batteries at Costco. The bottled water was gone, but he did purchase containers to fill with tap water. And he said he was glad his mother, a diabetic on kidney dialysis, was getting treatment Thursday.
"We are a little worried that the dialysis center might lose power, and she goes on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays," he said. "But they gave us a diet to put her on so she should be OK in an emergency."
Cher Takemoto, a married mother of two girls, teaches at Moanalua High School in Honolulu. School was scheduled to begin Thursday, but the building will serve as an evacuation shelter so teachers were warned that the school day could be cut short at any time to prep for evacuees.
"In the past we've been lucky," she said. "We've had so many tsunami warnings where nothing happened. Maybe this time it's real. We're praying for the best."
Only a few hours before the expected landfall, The Big Island was rattled by a magnitude-4.5 earthquake that struck about 7 miles from Waimea. There were no immediate reports of casualties or major damage.
Iselle, as of 11 a.m. ET Thursday, was about 300 miles east of Hilo with maximum sustained winds of 80 mph. A Category 1 hurricane, the lowest level hurricane, requires sustained winds of at least 74 mph.
Hui said it's possible the Big Island's mountainous volcanoes could provide some buffer. Still, the island's population of more than 180,000 people could be in for a wild ride, with violent winds, heavy rain and flooding.
Hurricane Julio lurked more than 1,000 miles east of Hawaii, a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 100 mph. Hui said its current track sends it just north of the islands, probably late Sunday or Monday. But Julio was too far away to make a firm determination on its fate, Hui said.