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Hawaii official closed beaches in the face of Hurricane Lane, but thousands swam anyway

Hawaii official closed beaches in the face of Hurricane Lane, but thousands swam anyway
Warnings to stay out of the surf did not deter beachgoers at Waikiki Beach as Hurricane Lane neared the Hawaiian islands. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Ikaika Kailiawa stood on a wall along the world-famous white sands of Waikiki Beach — surfboard by his side — as a wave slammed against the barrier and sent surf spraying.

Then came another. And another. He stood still like a statue, not ceding an inch to the ocean. He got wet, but not scared.

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Kailiawa stared out at normally turquoise water that turned dark as it stretched to the horizon. About 180 miles away, Hurricane Lane was moving slowly and deteriorating rapidly. Once a Category 5 storm, it had become a shell of its former self.

Still, Kailiawa knew the beaches were closed. Government officials had announced it Thursday and Friday as a precautionary measure. Lifeguard towers sat vacant. Police were highly visible around the beach. Across the street, stores were closed with windows either taped or boarded up.

Kailiawa surfed anyway.

“If I thought it was really bad, I wouldn’t go out,” he said. “But it’s not that bad.”

All around him, defiance arrived by the thousands — armed with surfboards, sea kayaks and inflatable devices shaped like flamingos, fat sharks and smiling dolphins. They swam or waded into the warm water uninhibited by any sense of dread. Hurricane Lane was like an aging prize fighter lured into the ring with a marquee name — and little left of what had made him once feared.

It’s a delicate balancing act for government officials. Don’t warn enough and suffer the consequences of tragedy. Warn too much and suffer the consequences of complacency. Even the old prizefighter might manage to connect on a defenseless jaw with a right hook.

Despite the beaches being closed because of the threat of Hurricane Lane, people play in the waters at Waikiki Beach in Hawaii.
Despite the beaches being closed because of the threat of Hurricane Lane, people play in the waters at Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Irving Biederman, the Harold Dornsife chair in neurosciences and a professor of psychology at USC, said there has been study done on what is called “the corruption of early warning systems.”

He said if something is repeated many times, people begin to process it as noise. It begins to lose impact. Coupled with people’s curiosity and feelings that bad things happen to other people, warning systems can backfire.

“It’s one of those aspects of education that we completely fail to communicate in the schools,” Biederman said. “We should teach decision-making in junior high where we have systems that predict dangers, and there will be false alarms and that’s to be expected. Instead, what we learn growing up is to make fun of the weatherman when they’re off. It’s a source of humor. But what we should be learning is there is uncertainty in forecasting.”

The storm hadn’t touched Honolulu by Saturday afternoon — barely giving the city a few short drizzles and very few sustained gusts of high winds. Hurricane Lane did most of its dirty work on the Big Island, where some spots received in excess of 30 inches of rain, and sustained flooding closed roads and damaged homes. There have been no fatalities due to the hurricane.

Local television stations broadcast hours and hours of coverage, showing dramatic video of flooding in Hilo. On the western side of the Big Island, Kona saw some heavy wind. Maui got hit with heavy rain, which triggered evacuations. And 100 homes were evacuated because of a brush fire — the cause of which was not yet determined.

But as Waikiki Beach kept waiting for Lane’s arrival, patience wore thinner with each passing day as more and more people, tourists and state residents, began creeping back to the beaches.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige wasn’t entirely surprised.

“I think most visitors want to be safe,” he said. “There are a few that will want to be in the ocean no matter who tells them what. All we’re trying to do is express there is a risk.”

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Because high winds had been forecast — and the fact the beaches were technically closed — lifeguards did not keep watch from their towers. Instead, they patrolled the beaches by truck, foot and jet ski.

A few times per hour, a bullhorn would crackle and a lifeguard would dutifully make an announcement to the crowd:

“For your safety, you should be seeking shelter immediately. Please stay out of the water due to the very strong and dangerous weather conditions. It is not safe and you are swimming at your own risk.”

While he spoke, a few heads turned but then people resumed swimming. The lifeguard smiled and shrugged.

Marius Van Der Merwe was trailing his 16-year-old daughter with a camera as she carried a long surfboard under her arm and headed into the water. The 54-year-old watched her start to paddle out and she soon got lost amid a series of black dots bobbing on the waves.

He said she’d been surfing for three years and they’d traveled from Toronto to catch waves in Hawaii. After three days of hurricane warnings and barely a anything more than a drizzle to show for it, they decided to do what they came to Hawaii to do.

Van Der Merwe watched for about 15 minutes, briefly lost sight of her, and then suddenly saw her paddling in. She emerged from the water in her black swimsuit and smiled.

“What happened?” he asked.

“It was a little rough out there,” Mika Van Der Merwe said.

He nodded. The 54-year-old had been surfing for decades and said the sport was a way for him to connect with his daughter.

“There is nothing as exhilarating as catching that wave, and it’s indescribable for someone who hasn’t experienced it,” he said. “I wanted my daughter to know that feeling, too.”

He said they’d be in Hawaii through Thursday, so there would be other chances to surf. A light drizzle started as they headed up the sand and back to their hotel — weaving past people lying on beach towels and building sand castles.

On the pier, people took pictures of the surf and posed for selfies — their backs to the ocean, the horizon and a storm that never really came to Waikiki.

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