HAMILTON, Bermuda – People on the tiny British territory of Bermuda rushed Thursday to batten down for Hurricane Gonzalo, which was roaring toward them as a major Category 4 storm just days after a tropical storm damaged homes and knocked down trees and power lines.
Gonzalo had top sustained winds of 145 mph and was centered about 460 miles south-southwest of Bermuda. It was moving north at 7 mph, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Tropical storm conditions are expected late Thursday, and forecasters said Gonzalo's center will be near Bermuda Friday afternoon and evening. The Bermuda Weather Service said Gonzalo would likely pass within 29 miles of the island Friday night as a Category 3 storm, close enough to be considered a direct hit.
"This is a very serious event," Dave Fox, a public affairs officer for the Bermuda government, said in a phone interview.
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, a Category 3 storm that hit Cuba.
Fox said the government opened a high school as a shelter, but that he expected most people to stay home.
"We build for hurricanes," he said. "It's part of the building code."
Bermuda, which is 850 miles east of the U.S. state of South Carolina, has one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world.
Kimberley Zuill, Bermuda Weather Service director, said at a press conference that the storm will affect the island for 27 hours.
"The path is similar to Fabian, the duration is similar to Fabian," she said. "If your property was exposed and received damage during Fabian, you will want to prepare for that again."
The capital of Hamilton appeared almost deserted by noon as stores boarded up windows. The businesses that remained open reported a steady stream of customers grabbing last minute essentials.
"Some people seem to have left it until the end to get things," said Melissa Trott, 25, an employee at Phoenix Store. "We sold out of batteries, and our warehouse has none left."
Gas stations also reported brisk business,.
"I was here for Hurricane Fabian in 2003, so I'm not taking any chances this time," said Susan Black, 65, a retiree who was filling up her car and several gas cans. "I've been busy since 6:30 this morning getting things ready."
Many were also moving boats to safer areas. While some can bring them out of the water, others relied on storm moorings and hoped for the best.
Forecasters said destructive waves could cause significant flooding on the island, which is about one-third the size of Washington, D.C. Some 3 to 6 inches of rain was predicted. The Bermuda Weather Service said seas would reach 35 feet on Friday.
The Turks and Caicos Islands government announced Thursday that it would send a 436-foot frigate of the United Kingdom's Royal Navy to help with post-storm recovery efforts if needed.
Gonzalo was approaching Bermuda as people coped with the aftermath of Sunday's Tropical Storm Fay. Hundreds of homes remained without power and homeowners worked to repair damaged roofs. The government called out 200 soldiers of the Bermuda Regiment to help with cleanup efforts on the island of roughly 70,000 people.
The government said it would close the island's international airport Thursday night, with several airlines increasing the number of flights departing Bermuda ahead of the storm. Officials also closed all public schools by Thursday afternoon.
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, and parts of the Bahamas.