HAMILTON, Bermuda (AP) — Hurricane Gonzalo roared toward Bermuda as a huge Category 4 storm on Friday and the head of the tiny British territory urged people to seek high ground due to seas that could rise 45 feet.
The storm was centered about 195 miles south-southwest of Bermuda Friday morning with top sustained winds of 130 mph , according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. It was moving to the north-northeast at 15 mph and was expected to pass near or over Bermuda Friday afternoon or evening.
Tropical storm-force winds began to hit the island Friday morning, with hurricane-force winds predicted to batter Bermuda for at least eight hours. Forecasters said seas would rise between 35 to 45 feet and would cause significant flooding on an island about one-third the size of Washington, D.C.
“We can expect heavy damage out of swell and surge,” said Rob Howlett, a meteorologist with the Bermuda Weather Service.
He said Gonzalo’s eye was expected to pass within 29 miles of the island, close enough to be considered a direct hit. The storm is forecast to weaken to a Category 3 storm as it passes Bermuda, but the National Hurricane Center said that “any weakening is probably too late to spare Bermuda, with almost all of the guidance showing the system as a major hurricane as it moves nearby.”
The leader of the tiny territory in the Atlantic urged those in low-lying areas to consider moving to higher ground. “We should expect at least 24 hours of storm-force winds,” Premier Michael Dunkley said.
Bermuda closed its schools and international airport, as well as suspending all public transportation, including ferries. Authorities on Thursday evacuated two hotels along Bermuda’s southern coast, with guests either flying out or being placed in another hotel.
The looming hurricane comes days after Tropical Storm Fay damaged homes and knocked down trees and power lines in Bermuda, with 1,500 homes still without power late Thursday. Bermuda’s residents stripped stores of emergency supplies in recent days as they battened down for Gonzalo.
The last major hurricane to strike Bermuda was Fabian in 2003, a Category 3 storm that killed four people. The last major hurricane to cross land in the Atlantic Basin was Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which hit Cuba as a Category 3 storm.
Dave Fox, a public affairs officer for the Bermuda government, said the government opened a high school as a shelter but noted that Bermuda is known for structures that can withstand heavy storms.
“We build for hurricanes,” he said. “It’s part of the building code.”
Bermuda, an island of roughly 70,000 people that lies 850 miles east of the U.S. state of South Carolina, has one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world.
Gonzalo swept by the eastern Caribbean earlier this week, claiming one life in the Dutch territory of St. Maarten. Large ocean swells continued to affect parts of the Virgin Islands, the northern coasts of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, parts of the Bahamas and the U.S. southeast coast.
Danica Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.