Preparing for the Hurricanes

We currently have two hurricanes bearing down on the island of Hawaiʻi. Not one, but two!

GEOS West 4km IR 5Aug2014
A GEOS infrared image of the Eastern pacific on the afternoon of August 5th. Visible are three hurricanes… Genevieve, Iselle and Julio (west to east)
First up is hurricane Iselle, currently a category 2 storm with 110mph sustained winds. Fortunately the storm is expected to weaken and cross the island as a mere tropical storm on Thursday. The track does predict that the storm will come right over the island, bringing heavy rains and possibly damaging winds.

Behind Iselle is Julio, now 1900 miles southeast of Hilo. This storm is expected to cross the island as a hurricane, the first hurricane to hit a Hawaiian island in over two decades. This is the storm everyone is watching. It is still a bit early, the storm is not expected to arrive until Sunday. The forecasts will be interesting and well read over the coming days.

Hurricane Iselle Forecast
The forecast path for hurricane Iselle, 5 Aug 2014
Fortunately our house is on the lee side of the island from these approaching storms, and is somewhat better sheltered than many of our neighbors. Storm preparations are quickly accomplished… Secure any outside furniture and gear, and insure we have a little extra water and propane on hand.

Preparations at the observatory are notably more complex.

The major concern is an extended power outage. We rely on long power lines that cross the saddle between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. If one or both of these storms prove damaging the power lines are likely to be part of the damage. These lines are also likely low on the list of repairs if there is extensive damage across the island.

Yes, there is a backup generator on site with a storage tank filled with diesel. How long will it last? What if the power lines along Saddle road are damaged? The power lines to the summit may be low on the priority list to repair if there are lines down all over the island.

If we are without power for a long period, we could lose power when the generator runs out of fuel. Of first concern are the instruments… The sensitive interiors of these cameras and spectrographs are kept at cryogenic temperatures, hundreds of degrees below freezing. Without power the instruments will start to warm up. Returning the instruments to service can take weeks. The vacuum dewars will have to be pumped again to restore the high quality vacuum conditions, then the instrument carefully cooled again.

Not that we are plunging blindly into this. We have a plan. Shutting down as much as we can, with priority given to the instruments. Hopefully the worst will not occur and we can continue smoothly on. But if the island does take damage we will be prepared to weather out the worst of it and preserve the facility.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

3 thoughts on “Preparing for the Hurricanes”

  1. Do you have plans for shutting down at night during the storms? I know CHFT will be shutting down through Sunday night. We (UKIRT) were actually going to return to summit operations beginning, guess when? Thursday night! I’ve delayed that by 24 hours so we’ll be closed that night, but we’ll be taking things a day at a time I think and reconsider operations on Friday depending on the overnight impacts.

  2. The call will be made tomorrow afternoon as our observing manager reviews the latest forecast. We also have plans to have much of the summit crew stay home with only a minimal crew going up Thursday, again with the decision to be made as conditions develop.

  3. Yeah, that’s what I would have done given the choice, but we’ve been closed for a few nights for heavy engineering (switching from wide field mode to Cass) and we would have been sending up several people for training on Weds evening to acclimatise, so I had to make the call well in advance. If we were operating normally, I would likely have waited until Wednesday evening, but unfortunately my choices were limited. Shame – it’s been nearly 6 years since we were in Cass mode and I loved observing with those instruments, and then this happens!

    Hope things go well, I know only too well the hassles of recovering after a long power outage.

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