MIAMI – The skies darkened ominously over Bermuda as Hurricane Bill approached Friday on a path to brush the Atlantic island with high surf and gusty winds while spreading dangerous waves and riptides along the eastern U.S. shore.
The Category 2 storm's maximum sustained winds lost a little strength Friday to near 110 mph, from 125 mph late Thursday. Forecasters said the hurricane's intensity could fluctuate in the next two days. Its center is expected to pass between Bermuda and the U.S. shore Saturday
Forecaster said Bill could raise sea levels by as much as three feet above ground level along Bermuda's coast, while bringing heavy rains.
The storm's approach apparently cut short a beachfront vacation by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters that they left Bermuda Thursday night.
Large swells from the storm were also affecting Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, and the Bahamas.
Authorities said dangerous rip currents and waves posed the biggest threat in Bermuda.
"We can't stress enough we want people to stay off the south shore beaches. No kite-surfing, no sailboarding. People seem to get overzealous," said Nea Talbot, a government spokeswoman.
On the eastern U.S. coast, offshore waves of 20 feet and more and rip currents at the beach are expected over one of the summer's last weekends. Forecasters warned boaters and swimmers from northeastern Florida to New England because of incoming swells as Bill passes far out to sea on a northward track for Canada's Maritime provinces.
North Carolina was expecting flooding and beach erosion on the Outer Banks this weekend. The National Weather Service said Bill could cause water levels to rise three to four feet above normal and the ocean could spill over roads there.
Emergency managers in New England warned boaters, swimmers and surfers to take added precautions this weekend, when waves are expected to swell to 35 feet off the coast.
The National Weather Service said seas will get increasingly dangerous on Saturday into Sunday. Waves of up to 20 feet are possible south of Martha's Vineyard and Block Island and east of Cape Cod, and up to 35 feet on portions of the prime fishing area of Georges Bank, the weather service said.
President Obama and his family plan to travel to Martha's Vineyard on Sunday for vacation.
Mariners from Rhode Island up to Maine were told to stay close to port because of the high seas and what could be tropical storm-force winds. Steve Kass of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency said anybody offshore south of New England will face "absolutely dangerous conditions."
"If you own a boat and you like to go out any distance, this is not the weekend to do it," he said.
Bermuda's storm warning means winds of 40 mph or more were expected to arrive within a day, and the island remained under a hurricane watch that indicated even stronger winds were possible within 36 hours.
The Clintons arrived in Bermuda on Wednesday for a 3- or 4-day getaway. Local newspapers said they stayed at a luxury beachfront hotel, though their representatives refused to comment on their visit. Photographers spotted the former president golfing on Thursday.
The center's five-day track showed Bill staying well out to sea off the U.S. coast and inching closer to land off Canada's Maritime provinces before veering back out into the North Atlantic.
At 2 p.m. EDT Friday, the storm was centered about 290 miles south-southwest of Bermuda, or about 695 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., and was moving northwest around 18 mph.
Bill is the first Atlantic hurricane this year after a quiet start to the season that runs from June through November. The Miami center lowered its Atlantic hurricane outlook on Aug. 6 after no named tropical storms developed in the first two months.
The revised prediction was for three to six hurricanes, with one or two becoming major storms with winds over 110 mph. Researchers at Colorado State University have also lowered their Atlantic season forecast to four hurricanes, two of them major.