At its closest approach, Hurricane Nina in 1957 was centered about 120 miles west-southwest of Kauai. But it still created notable damage and dropped over 20 inches of rain. Oahu was also strongly affected by the storm. Hurricane Dot (1959), a category four hurricane, entered the south Pacific just south of Hawaii and, after changing directions, passed over Kauai. Downgraded to a category one storm, it still packed wind gusts over 100 MPH and caused minor damage to Hawaii, Oahu and Kauai. Even hurricanes that are not that strong can cause considerable damage. Hurricane Iwa (1982), a category one hurricane, passed just west of Kauai, causing as much as $250 million dollars in damage.
A full-blown category 4 hurricane, Hurricane Iniki (1992), was the strongest ever to impact the state. It was also the deadliest, resulting in six deaths. The eye of Iniki passed directly over Kauai and caused $3.1 billion in damage. Category four hurricanes can carry winds between 131 and 155 miles-per-hour and they can cause extreme damage. In 2014, two hurricanes appeared ready to hit Hawaii. But only one, Iselle, which was downgraded to a tropical storm, actually made landfall. Hurricane Julio, Iselle’s twin, missed Hawaii.
Hawaii is just a very small hurricane target in a very big ocean. Conditions have to be just right for Hawaii to be a direct hit by a big storm. Broad weather forces in the Pacific tend to push hurricanes toward Asia. Call it a lucky quirk of geography. Hawaii has a fortuitous location within the flow of easterly trade winds. Even as hurricanes move towards the islands, when they get close, prevailing winds often push them westward and away.
Another reason is ocean temperature. Tropical storms can only form and continue in areas where the ocean surface temperature is 80 degrees or above. They convert the warm air over the ocean into powerful winds and waves. When surface water temperatures fall below 80 degrees they begin to dissipate. Hawaii’s ocean temperature has been working in its favor. Hopefully changes that result from global warming will not diminish this advantage by warming ocean waters. Finally, the good news is that little Hawaii is the proverbial needle in the haystack. Hurricanes just seem to have a hard time finding the islands.