HONOLULU – Hawaii braced for Tropical Storm Felicia on Sunday, taking no chances even though the storm weakened rapidly as it slipped toward the islands.
Felicia was downgraded to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph with higher gusts. It's expected to weaken even more before hitting Hawaii late Monday or early Tuesday, when it is expected be either a tropical storm or depression.
The Central Pacific Hurricane Center said the storm's center was about 480 miles east of Hilo and 655 miles east of Honolulu as of 2 p.m. HST.
"Right now, the official track is right through the middle of the state," said Julie Kelly, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Kelly said tropical storms and depressions aren't as organized as hurricanes, so the strongest winds aren't necessarily in the center, or the eye. Therefore, even if the storm stays on course or tracks away, several islands could experience heavy winds and rains.
Parts of Hawaii were under a tropical storm watch.
One of Hawaii's most popular attractions, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, closed most of its roads and campgrounds until "after tropical storm conditions have passed." Several beach parks on Hawaii's Big Island were also being closed Sunday afternoon because the storm was expected to increase wave heights. A building swell generated by the storm was expected to hit eastern shores of the eastern Hawaiian islands later Sunday, according to the Hurricane Center. Large surf is expected to spread to eastern shores of all islands Sunday night and Monday.
The Hawaii County Civil Defense advised Big Island residents to be on alert for sudden increases in surf heights and tie down loose items outside their homes. A flash flood watch was issued for the Big Island starting Monday.
Kelly said the arriving high surf was generated when the storm was much stronger, so people need to be cautious and prepare.
Felicia peaked Thursday as a Category 4 storm with winds topping 140 mph.
On Sunday, it was another relaxing day in paradise for many tourists, who were enjoying the sunny skies and calm before Felicia's arrival.
"We've been watching the Weather Channel every day, but never thought to change our plans or anything," said Lee Binschus, who was vacationing on the Big Island with his wife and two teenage daughters. "We just hope it won't mess up our plans for our water tour on Tuesday."
Being from the Pacific Northwest, the Binschus family said it is used to rain. "Actually, I think it would be cool to see a hurricane," daughter Casey Binschus said.
Some of the islands' stores were a little less peaceful. Residents stocked up on emergency items and staples, such as bottled water, rice, Spam, batteries, toilet paper and flashlights.
Retired school teacher Elsie Uechi was shopping for lanterns, water and canned meat.
"But I hope it passes, like always," Uechi told KITV. "Maybe we will be lucky again this time."
Flossie, the last hurricane to threaten Hawaii, brought heavy rains and high surf to the Big Island in 2007 but caused no damage.