By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
While the deluge of rain — as well as snow on Mauna Kea — that visited the Big Island this weekend was certainly nothing to sneeze at, it could have been worse, experts say.
“It ended up being a little bit less rain than we thought,” said Kevin Kodama, senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Honolulu. “We were looking for more impacts in Hilo and the Puna area. The good thing ended up being there weren’t as many of those impacts.”
Kodama said that while both Maui and Hawaii Island were under a flash flood watch, no severe flooding was reported.
“Thursday afternoon we told Civil Defense that it was just going to be … wave after wave after wave. It was just going to go and go and go. Nothing too intense, just a slow burn type of thing,” he said.
Pahoa saw the largest amount of rainfall during the 72-hour period from 8 a.m. Friday to 8 a.m. Monday, with 8.07 inches of rain. Heavy precipitation was also measured by rain gauges in Piihonua, Waiakea Uka, Hilo and Mountain View, all with accumulations of more than 6 inches.
The last major system that brought heavy rains to Hawaii Island at this time of year was much more pronounced, Kodama said.
“The last time we saw a setup like this was February of 2008, and that event was a lot worse. We saw in places 20 to 40 inches of rain in five days,” he said. “They had single-day totals on the order of 12-16 inches, which was more than we got this entire weekend.”
Even so, several roads saw temporary closures leading up to and during the weekend as a result of water accumulation.
Meanwhile, about a foot-and-a-half of snow above the 13,000-foot mark shut down Mauna Kea Access Road for the majority of the weekend. When the road finally opened up at about 11:40 a.m., however, there was a long line of cars at the Visitors Center waiting to make the trip to the summit.
Stewart Hunter, the general manager for Mauna Kea Observatories Support Services, said Monday that about 260 vehicles made their way to the summit to take in the first major snowfall of the year, despite the inherent dangers that accompany such a drive.
“We really don’t want to encourage people to come up here, because of the lack of facilities for them,” he said, “but we did anticipate a larger crowd because this was the first snowfall of the year, and it happened on a weekend.”
Hunter said that road crews made their way to the summit early each morning, Friday through Sunday, to plow their way down the road. Because of cultural and ecological concerns on the mountain, no chemicals or road salt is used to melt snow and ice. Therefore, road conditions are largely dependent on whether the sun is shining or not, he said.
“It came down pretty steady for about two-and-a-half days. We had our road crews on the road at 7:30 or 8 a.m. each morning, and they’d take off the snow — it took about three to four hours (for two workers) each morning,” he said. “But there’s always a layer of ice underneath the snow, and they can’t really remove that without damaging the pavement underneath. If the sun comes out, the ice will quickly melt without the snow on top of it, but on Friday and Saturday, we had continual squalls coming through and the sun didn’t come out from the clouds. So, even though the roads were clear of snow, there was lots of ice that never fully melted.”
But on Sunday, he said, the sky cleared, and when the road crew opened the summit road to the public, there were plenty of people waiting at the visitor center who were anxious to get a gander of the first honest-to-goodness snowfall of the season.
Big Isle residents participated in the time-honored traditions of building snowmen, packing snow in their pickup trucks to bring back down the mountain, and zooming down the mountainside on boogie boards, he said.
But such entertainments come with risks, and Hunter warned that members of the public should be aware of the dangers and avoid making the trip if possible.
“It’s a very dangerous place,” he said. “You can park your car next to an observatory dome, and there’s falling ice. Things can go south very quickly. When boogie boarding, you’re not going to stop as soon as you think, there’s lots of exposed rocks you can cut yourself on. People come up here in board shorts and slippers. The weather can change in an instant and they can be stranded.”
Hunter added that in anticipation of the influx of visitors, Support Services brought up two off-duty police officers to help maintain order and safety.
On Monday, the Mauna Kea Weather Center predicted that weather on the summit would remain dry, clear and stable through Monday night. Sustained to strong winds were also expected.
For more information, and to check on road conditions, visit http://mkwc.ifa.hawaii.edu/.
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.