Rare Hawaiian hurricane, packing strong winds and rains, approaches islands

By Smita Paul

MAUI, Hawaii (Reuters) - Hurricane Douglas bore down on Hawaii on Sunday packing torrential rains and damaging winds as it churned just east of the islands in the central Pacific, forecasters said, with one local leader urging residents to be prepared for the worst.

Douglas was expected to make landfall or pass close to the main Hawaiian islands from Maui to Kauai later in the day or into the evening, the Miami-based U.S. National Hurricane Center said. Sirens blared on Maui on Sunday morning as palm trees swayed in the wind and white-cap waves crashed against the island's shores, video aired on local television showed.

In its latest update, the hurricane center said Douglas had maximum sustained winds of 85 miles per hour (140 km per hour), moving west-northwest at 16 mph (26 kph) about 55 miles (90 km) east of Kahului.

"We encourage everyone to hunker down, to be prepared for hurricane force winds. We prepare for the worst and hope for the best," Governor David Ige said during a news conference.

Storms of this magnitude are rare for Hawaii, with only five hurricanes and tropical storms causing major damage on the remote string of islands since 1950, according to researchers at the University of Hawaii.

As the hurricane interacts with the terrain, it will continue to shift and move, said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who warned of a storm surge on the west side of the Island of Oahu.

"This is a serious storm. We think back to Hurricane Iwa and the damage it did on the west side as the wind shifted," he said, referring to the 1982 storm that caused more than $300 million in damage.

Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino told residents to put food in coolers and to stay indoors.

"Pray that this impact will be minimal," Victorino said in comments aired by KHON2 News, a local Fox affiliate.

Hurricane conditions, including several inches of rain, were expected during the day in Maui County and on Oahu Island and on Kauai and Niihau at night, forecasters said.

The Hawaiian islands will experience large swells on Monday, producing life-threatening and potentially destructive surf along shores, the hurricane center said. The storm surge will lift water levels as much as three feet (one meter) near the hurricane's center, it added.

Hawaii has only a fraction of the number of tourists it would normally have at this time of year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Editing by Will Dunham and Diane Craft)