How rare are hurricanes in Hawaii?

Examining the Aloha State's history with tropical cyclones


Hurricane Douglas is barreling on a track toward the Hawaiian Islands and could reach Category 3 strength later this week. However, even though forecasters expect Douglas to move directly across Hawaii, they are also calling for the storm to weaken significantly by the time it gets there sometime late Sunday into Monday, meaning it would spare Hawaii the worst impacts.

Meteorologists warn there is still a chance Douglas could hold together as a tropical storm, allowing its outer bands to bring waves of heavy rainfall to parts of the island chain, especially the Big Island. But if it falls apart, it will follow many other systems that have met a similar fate.

A look back on Hawaii’s history shows just how rare it is for hurricanes to impact the islands.

Hurricanes hit Hawaii less frequently because of where the islands are located in the Pacific Ocean. Due to a high-pressure feature that looms in the atmosphere northeast of the state, storms as large as hurricanes are usually deflected or weakened by the time they reach the region.

Cooler waters also play a role in weakening tropical systems that track through the area.

“Sea-surface temperature tends to run too cool to the east of the islands,” AccuWeather Hurricane Expert Dan Kottlowski said. “So, any hurricanes approaching from the east tend to weaken and fall apart before reaching the islands.”

“Hurricanes approaching from the south are more likely to hit the islands, but this does not happen very often due to the strong trade wind flow from the east. This tends to keep hurricanes tracking south of the islands on a westerly course taking them too far west to impact the main islands.”

However, that doesn’t mean the state has never seen destructive hurricanes before. Here are a few of the most notable exceptions.

Palm trees being blown by a tropical rain storm.

Hurricane Lane (2018)

Lane never made landfall in Hawaii, but its presence was certainly felt in August of 2018 when it unleashed record-breaking rainfall across parts of the island chain. According to NOAA, the slow-moving storm dumped 58 inches of total rainfall on the island of Hawaii, as recorded at the Kahuna Falls Cooperative Observer Program station, breaking a record for the Aloha State that had stood for 68 years (more on that below).

Lane, which formed in mid-August, peaked at Category 5 strength, but by the time it neared the Hawaiian Islands, it had weakened substantially. Even as a weakened tropical depression, Lane continued to drench Hawaii with heavy rains, which caused flooding and mudslides on Kauai and Oahu. Flooding and other impacts from Lane caused in excess of $250 million in economic losses, according to the insurance giant AON’s Global Catastrophe Recap for 2018. One direct fatality was blamed on Lane, according to NOAA’s report on the storm.

Hurricane Iniki (1992)

Considered the most catastrophic hurricane in Hawaii’s history, Iniki originated in 1992, which was also an El Niño year. The storm slammed into Hawaii in September as a Category 4 hurricane and was blamed for six fatalities. “Hurricane Iniki caused nearly $3 billion in damage in Hawaii back in September 1992, which would be about $5.5 billion in today’s dollars,” AccuWeather CEO and Founder Dr. Joel N. Myers said.

Iniki is considered to be the most powerful hurricane ever to hit Hawaii. Winds were recorded at 145 mph and destroyed 1,421 houses. The hurricane struck while Steven Spielberg and the cast of Jurassic Park were on the island of Kauai filming. Footage of the storm and its destruction was included in the production.

Hurricane Iwa (1982)

Prior to Iniki, Iwa was the most damaging hurricane to hit Hawaii. Iwa was the very last hurricane of the 1982 season, forming in November and causing $312 million in damage.

Officials blamed one death on high seas caused by the storm while 2,345 buildings and 1,927 houses were destroyed. Iwa mainly struck the islands of Kauai, Niihau and Oahu, all three of which were declared disaster areas by President Ronald Reagan. The entire island of Kauai was left without power, and 44 of the 45 boats at Port Allen were sunk.

Hurricane Dot (1959)

Arriving in August 1959, Dot made landfall on Kauai with winds as strong as 103 mph. Kauai endured widespread flooding due to the torrential rain and rough surf along the coasts.

At its peak, Dot was a Category 4 storm but weakened to a Category 1 by landfall. There were two indirect deaths in Lanai, and the damage totaled $6 million, which would be about $53 million in 2020 dollars. Dot was believed to have originated in the waters by Baja California but was never officially recognized and named until it was near peak intensity.

Hurricane Nina (1957)

A Category 1 hurricane that formed in November 1957, Nina didn’t directly strike the state but came close enough to bring 92-mph winds to Kauai. Nina caused $100,000 in damages and destroyed 12 homes. Four people were killed throughout the islands, and it also produced the highest wind gusts ever recorded in Honolulu. Like Iwa, Nina was the final hurricane of the 1957 season.

Hurricane Hiki (1950)

Considered the first official hurricane to come near the Hawaiian Islands region since record-keeping began, Hiki formed in August 1950 and packed wind gusts of 85 mph, but Hiki’s signature impact was not powerful winds.

Until Harvey in 2017, Hiki was the wettest tropical cyclone in the history of the United States, dropping more than 50 inches of rain. There was one fatality associated with the storm, as a farmer in Kohala died after coming in contact with a live wire.

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