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By Malia Mattoch McManus
HONOLULU (Reuters) - Hurricane Iselle battered Hawaii with driving winds and towering surf on Thursday, knocking down trees and causing power outages, the first of two major storms due to hit the archipelago as the more powerful Hurricane Julio gathered steam behind it.
More than 1,200 people flocked to evacuation shelters across the Big Island, according to County of Hawaii Civil Defense, as heavy rains and strong winds pummelled areas of East Hawaii from the Puna area to the town of Hilo.
Hawaii Electric Light Company had about 5,000 customers without power, mostly in East Hawaii, a Hawaii County official said.
By late on Thursday evening, with the eye of the storm still about 70 miles (113 km) southeast of Hilo, the Category 1-rated hurricane was assessed with maximum sustained winds of about 75 miles per hour (120 kph), said Central Pacific Hurricane Center meteorologist Eric Lau.
The eye of the storm appeared to be dissipating as it approached the Big Island, however, and might strike between 10 p.m. and midnight local time as a tropical storm. It would bring waves of up to 25 feet (8 meters) before passing south of the state's smaller islands on Friday, Lau said.
Further east, Hurricane Julio was gaining momentum and was expected to pass just north of Hawaii by Sunday or early Monday, Lau said.
That hurricane was upgraded late on Thursday to a Category 3 storm, with maximum sustained winds increasing to near 115 mph (185 kph), with higher gusts, the National Hurricane Center said. It was moving on a westward track at 16 mph (26 kph).
In anticipation of the rare back-to-back storms, Hawaii residents scrambled to stock up on supplies as state officials warned of the potential for flash floods, mudslides and power outages in the normally calm tourist haven.
Governor Neil Abercrombie signed an emergency proclamation freeing up funds and resources and authorities advised residents to prepare seven-day disaster supply kits and cautioned them against driving except in an emergency.
"Everybody knows that a real rough time is coming," Abercrombie told a news conference.
Hawaii's schools would be closed on Friday, but authorities planned to keep airports open so planes could land in an emergency, even as some airlines cancelled flights, officials said.
Malia Baron, an Oahu resident visiting the Big Island, known for its volcanoes, black-sand beaches and coffee farms, reported the weather as blustery late on Thursday.
"Our power is out again. It's been on and off all evening and we were lucky enough to finish cooking before one of the longer outages," she said.
Power was out at the Olinda Water Treatment plant in a rural area of Maui, and officials told some 700 water customers to conserve water, County of Maui spokesman Rod Antone said.
Emergency officials also told residents in the area of the Puna Geothermal Venture plant in Pohoiki to stay indoors or evacuate to safe zones after a spill of poisonous hydrogen sulfide. It was not immediately clear how serious the spill was.
Preparations for a primary election scheduled for Saturday continued, officials said, but added they would reassess how to proceed on Friday after Iselle hits.
"If things are really, really bad when we make the assessment on Friday, we will consider postponing elections for whatever part of the state is adversely affected by the storm," said Rex Quidilla, spokesman for the state Office of Elections.
On the Big Island, a downpour soaked customers who dashed from cars to the Sunshine True Value Hardware store in Kapaau only to discover shelves already picked clean of batteries, flashlights, duct tape and plywood. Sales clerk Caryl Lindamood tried to stay cheerful.
"Mother Nature sure does like to stir things up for us, doesn't she?" she said, joking about both the storms and a small 4.5 magnitude earthquake that struck the Big Island 12 miles (19 km) west of Waimea on Thursday morning.
Robert Trickey, 56, an interior decorator, said he was worried about plate-glass windows that act as walls at his house near Pahoa on the Big Island. Kailua-Kona resident Lisa Hummel, 44, said her family was filling water containers and stocking up on batteries, candles and flashlights, and planned to shelter in their basement when the hurricane arrives.
"We'll probably make a pot of chilli and ride it out," she said.
Markus Schale, general manager of Hotel Wailea on Maui, said his staff had removed outdoor furniture from patios and around the swimming pool.
"We're delivering food and drinks to people's rooms before the storm, a sort of picnic service in the afternoon so they can stay in their rooms safely tonight," he said.
(Additional reporting by Ken Wills and Karin Stanton on the Kohala coast of the Big Island, and Gunna Dickson in New York; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Sandra Maler, Ken Wills and Sonya Hepinstall)