HAMILTON, Bermuda >> Hurricane Gonzalo roared toward Bermuda as a powerful Category 3 storm on Friday and the head of the tiny British territory urged people to seek high ground due to a potential storm surge of 10 feet.
The storm was centered about 150 miles south-southwest of Bermuda late Friday morning with top sustained winds of 125 mph, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. It was moving to the north-northeast at 16 mph and was expected to pass near or over Bermuda Friday 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 waves would rise between 35 to 45 feet and create a potential storm surge of 10 feet that 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 is expected to pass within 29 miles of the island, close enough to be considered a direct hit. Even though the storm is expected to remain a Category 3 as it passes Bermuda, 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.”
Meteorologist Dennis Feltgen said a storm surge is approaching Bermuda as waves of 35 to 40 feet build out in open ocean.
“That’s a pretty big wall of water,” he said in a phone interview.
“We don’t want anyone getting hung up on that if this slips from a Category 4 to a Category 3, that that’s going to make any difference on the impact. It won’t,” he said. “This is still a major hurricane.”
Despite the warnings, a crowd gathered at Elbow Beach Friday morning on the island’s southeast coast to watch the growing waves and swap storm tips, with one person suggesting the safest place was under the stairs. In the town of St. George, Nick West took his dog on a final walk.
“There are a bunch of folks sitting in the square talking about the storm, but it’s all pretty calm so far,” he said.
Soldiers from the Bermuda Regiment were dispatched to several areas, with some stationed at nursing homes. Two ambulances and medical personnel were stationed at the Regiment’s headquarters in case the hospital becomes inaccessible.
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, the international airport and the causeway, which links the eastern end of the island where the airport is located to the mainland. Authorities on Thursday evacuated two hotels along Bermuda’s southern coast, with guests either flying out or being placed in another hotel.
The island of roughly 70,000 people lies 850 miles (1,400 kilometers) east of the U.S. state of South Carolina and has strict building codes that ensure homes can withstand hurricanes. Bermuda also has one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world.
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. 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.
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.