On September 11, 1992, the residents of the state of Hawai'i were awakened at 5:30am by Civil Defense alarms. Hurricane Iniki had taken a sharp right turn from its position well south of the state and was headed north.
The storm had been traveling westward from waters off Baja California for nearly a week; on the morning of September 10 it was approximately 400 miles south of Honolulu. Several weather conditions caused this pattern to change.
We on O'ahu had gone to bed the previous evening feeling fairly safe; we knew it was out there, but the forecasters on the late news that night had been fairly sure the storm would miss the state by a comfortable distance. Thus when the horns went off that Friday morning, it was a shock.
I was at home that morning when my neighbor telephoned me to ask if I'd heard the alarms; she then told me the details she'd heard on the television and radio news, and I experienced an immediate form of measured panic. My family was on Maui for the weekend, so the entire 2,500sf split-level home was my responsibility. What to do first? It should be remembered that this was only two weeks after Hurricane Andrew had hit South Florida, and we had been seeing all those horrific photos on the news, so the images of potential devastation were pretty clear in my mind. I couldn't do much about the roof if it were to blow off, but there were ten sliding glass doors which opened to the outdoors; I needed masking tape for them. Then there were at least six floor-to-ceiling windows elsewhere in the house; more masking tape required. Ok, did we have tape? Nope. What to do? Why, what any self-respecting resident of Hawai'i does when faced with dock strikes or national disasters: go to Longs Drugs.
At 6:30am, then, I was in my car heading down the hill to buy hurricane preparedness material at the neighborhood drug store; it quickly emerged that virtually every other person within driving distance had been equally remiss in stocking up on toilet paper, rice, masking tape, batteries, beer and water bottles; the crowds were huge. Nonetheless, the stuff got purchased eventually, and back up the hill I went.
Windows and doors taped, I started thinking about what else I should do. Deck furniture and flower pots can become projectiles when carried by gale-force winds, so that was the next chore. I managed to get all of the pool deck furniture under the house in the crawl space; only later did it occur to me that I could have just thrown it all into the pool itself. The other deck furniture ended up inside the house, strewn about two rooms. Then I could concentrate on plants.
Just off the back deck was a dracaena tree, with multiple trunks. On each trunk were hung several orchid plants, each in a concrete pot. The pots could easily have been blown off the tree, so I had to remove each one and find a protected place to store it. There must have been a dozen of those plants. Once those were placed out of the wind's way, I began looking for more plants, and I must have found another twenty. When I was done, the interior of the house looked as though I was running a combination garage sale and plant nursery, but I felt that I'd done about all that I could.
My 60-something neighbor, meanwhile, was doing the same thing at her house. When she was done, she called me to tell me she was coming over to our house with her two cats (in carriers), as she didn't want to be alone. I was glad to have the company; my dogs perhaps less so. By this time it was probably about 11:30am; the storm had made its northerly turn and was heading directly for Kaua'i. At about this time the Kaua'i airport was shut down; that had an unexpected impact on our situation, because within a few minutes we got a telephone call from some long-time friends who had just flown in from the Mainland on their way home to Kaua'i, asking if we could put them up. Of course I said yes, and within a half-hour they drove up in a rental car.
The winds worsened on O'ahu until mid-afternoon; the four of us watched the coral trees on either side of the driveway bend and sway dramatically, but no branches came down. The Wai'anae coast was the only part of the island that was seriously affected, as it turned out. Not so on Kaua'i; the eye of the storm made landfall at about 3:30pm, spent forty minutes traversing the island from south to north, and did tremendous damage. Seven people were killed and some 14,500 homes were damaged or destroyed. The economic damage lasted for years.
For those of us on O'ahu, the worst part of the storm may have been the anticipation of disaster; once that was past, the sheer lack of information about what had happened on Kaua'i was terrible. Telephone and electrical lines were down all over the island; four weeks later only 20% of power had been restored. Television news crews could not get there, nor could newspaper reporters. Amateur (or ham) radio operators were the only conduit for news.
My family made it back from Maui the following day; they were quite impressed with the precautions I'd taken. Our friends from Kaua'i had to wait nearly a week to go home. When they did get back, they learned their home had been seriously damaged; it took several months to repair.
Following the storm, NOAA did an exhaustive response assessment; one of the obvious conclusions was that had the storm hit O'ahu with anything like the force it had when striking Kaua'i, the loss of life and property damage would have been immense.
If you'd like to read further about Iniki and its impact on Hawai'i, Ron Hashiro (AH6RH) has put together an impressive page of links, including official documents and other personal reminiscences.