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Felicia weakens to tropical storm near Hawaii

HONOLULU — Hawaii braced for Tropical Storm Felicia, taking no chances even though the storm weakened rapidly as it moved toward the islands.

Felicia was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph with higher gusts. It's expected to weaken even more before hitting Hawaii, probably before daybreak Tuesday morning as either a tropical storm or depression.

"It continues to weaken and we expect that trend to continue," Raymond Tanabe, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Honolulu, said early Monday. "But the threat is not zero. You could still see some pretty good winds and rainfall."

The storm was expected to bring high winds and heavy rain to the islands of Maui, Lanai and Molokai Tuesday morning, with Felicia likely to wash ashore on the island of Oahu later on Tuesday evening, Tanabe said.

"Maui and Oahu will get the highest impact and the most rain," he said.

The Central Pacific Hurricane Center said the storm's center was about 355 miles east-northeast of Hilo and about 530 miles east of Honolulu as of 2 a.m. HST Monday. The storm was moving west at about 10 mph.

Most of Hawaii was under a tropical storm watch.

Tropical storms and depressions aren't as organized as hurricanes, so the strongest winds aren't necessarily in the center, or the eye, Julie Kelly, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said Sunday. Therefore, even if the storm stays on course or tracks away, several islands could experience heavy winds and rains.

One of Hawaii's most popular attractions, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, closed most of its roads and campgrounds until "after tropical storm conditions have passed." Several beach parks on Hawaii's Big Island were also being closed Sunday afternoon because the storm was expected to increase wave heights. A building swell generated by the storm was expected to hit eastern shores of the eastern Hawaiian islands later Sunday, according to the Hurricane Center.

The Hawaii County Civil Defense advised Big Island residents to be on alert for sudden increases in surf heights and tie down loose items outside their homes. A flash flood watch was issued for the Big Island starting Monday.

Kelly said the arriving high surf was generated when the storm was much stronger, so people need to be cautious and prepare.

Felicia peaked Thursday as a Category 4 storm with winds topping 140 mph.

On Sunday, it was another relaxing day in paradise for many tourists, who were enjoying the sunny skies and calm before Felicia's arrival.

"We've been watching the Weather Channel every day, but never thought to change our plans or anything," said Lee Binschus, who was vacationing on the Big Island with his wife and two teenage daughters. "We just hope it won't mess up our plans for our water tour on Tuesday."

Being from the Pacific Northwest, the Binschus family said it is used to rain. "Actually, I think it would be cool to see a hurricane," daughter Casey Binschus said.

Some of the islands' stores were a little less peaceful. Residents stocked up on emergency items and staples, such as bottled water, rice, Spam, batteries, toilet paper and flashlights.

Retired school teacher Elsie Uechi was shopping for lanterns, water and canned meat.

"But I hope it passes, like always," Uechi told KITV. "Maybe we will be lucky again this time."

Flossie, the last hurricane to threaten Hawaii, brought heavy rains and high surf to the Big Island in 2007 but caused no damage.