By Jolyn Rosa
HONOLULU (Reuters) - Hurricane Lane crept closer toward the heart of the Hawaiian islands on Friday as it weakened into a tropical storm while still drenching the Big Island with torrential rains and severe, widespread flooding, weather and civil defense officials said.
Lane, with maximum sustained winds diminishing to near 70 mph (110 kph), was forecast to make its nearest approach to land just west of the island chain over the weekend, bringing tropical storm-force conditions to Maui and the state's most populous island, Oahu, starting on Friday night.
Farther north, a tropical storm watch was posted for the island of Kauai.
The biggest immediate danger was posed by flooding and mudslides that could worsen the longer the storm lingers close to the U.S. Pacific island chain, soaking the landscape.
"We do anticipate lots of rain from Lane in the coming hours," Governor David Ige said at an evening news briefing.
Emergency crews were responding to reports of people trapped in vehicles and homes along with landslides and fallen trees that have blocked major roadways on the island of Hawaii, popularly known as the Big Island, according to accounts on social media.
"The cops are getting trapped. They go into an area to get (people) out, then realize the water's to high to go back the way they came," a volunteer disaster assist team said on Twitter.
But as official bulletins grew less dire through the day, forecasts made clear that Hawaii had been spared from the threat of its first direct hit by a major hurricane in a quarter of a century.
Lane was downgraded on Friday to a Category 2 hurricane, then to a Category 1, the lowest ranking on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, as it churned through the Pacific south of Oahu, the National Weather Service said. It was downgraded again to a tropical storm shortly before 5 p.m. local time as its maximum sustained wind speeds fell below 74 mph.
The storm was expected to continue drifting slowly northward and weaken further before trade winds overtake its forward motion and push it sharply off to the west and away from land on Saturday, Weather Service forecaster Leigh Anne Eaton told a news conference in Honolulu.
MORE RAIN FROM THE 'SLOW LANE'
Forecasts called for Lane, which peaked as a Category 5 hurricane with top sustained winds of 160 mph (260 kph) earlier in the week, to diminish into a tropical depression by early on Sunday.
The turn of events was welcomed by residents who had spent much of the past few days stocking up on food, water, gasoline and batteries and boarding up their windows.
Still, the storm posed a considerable weather hazard to large parts of the state, with the island of Hawaii bearing the brunt of torrential downpours from Lane.
In Piihonua on the Big Island, Douglas and Hilari Odell picked through muck around their house on Friday, a day after a deluge of water crashed into their home.
"I could hear it coming," said Hilari Odell told Hawaii News Now. "When I looked outside the porch, the whole yard was covered with water."
More than 2 feet (60 cm) of rain had fallen in a 36-hour period by Friday morning on the Big Island's windward side, where the Weather Service reported "catastrophic flooding." Eaton said some parts of the island had received nearly 3 feet of rain.
A number of structures on the Big Island were destroyed and some residents were reported to be fleeing their homes, said Melissa Dye, a Weather Service spokeswoman in Honolulu.
Fire department personnel have conducted several rescues of people stranded by high water on the Big Island since Thursday, mostly around its biggest city, Hilo, said Kelly Wooten, a Hawaii County civil defense spokeswoman.
She said two Hilo-area neighborhoods were evacuated. But no injuries were reported.
Flash flooding and mudslides on the Big Island have also forced a number of road closures and Governor Ige urged residents to avoid any unnecessary travel.
On Oahu, where 70 percent of Hawaii's 1.4 million residents live, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell told the Weather Channel that the city has moved its emergency-response equipment to higher ground for the time being.
He said Honolulu, the state's capital and largest city, is vulnerable to floods and slides because it is partly ringed by mountains.
"We have asked our residents in these areas where they know it floods to be ready to leave," Caldwell said, adding that 1,100 people were staying in emergency shelters throughout the city.
Later remarking on the storm's slow pace, the mayor said, "Lane is in the slow lane and doesn't want to go away."
Hawaii's major airports remained open during the storm, though 22 flights were canceled at Honolulu's main airport, according to online tracking service FlightAware.com. Several airlines also canceled service to Kahului Airport on Maui in anticipation of severe weather, the state transportation department said.
The governor said travelers should expect congestion at the airports on Saturday and Sunday from the backlog of canceled flights.
(Reporting by Jolyn Rosa; Additional reporting by Diane Craft in Kailua, Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Makini Brice in Washington, Alex Dobzinskis in Los Angeles and Gabriella Borter in New York Writing by Daniel Wallis and Steve Gorman; Editing by Sandra Maler, Paul Tait, Sam Holmes and Adrian Croft)