Hamilton, Bermuda (AFP) Sept 19, 2010
Tiny, remote Bermuda found itself at the mercy of giant Hurricane Igor on Sunday, whipped by fierce winds and rain that authorities fear could spell disaster.
The brunt of the unusually large storm, whose eye was bigger than the entire British overseas territory of 65,000 people, was not expected to strike until late Sunday.
But hurricane-force gusts already battered Bermuda and huge storm surges had washed out beaches, flooded coastal communities and left nearly half the island without power.
"Hurricane Igor will be a direct hit tonight," the Bermuda Weather Service (BWS) said on its website, as authorities warned residents to brace themselves and prepare for one of the worst storms ever to hit the island.
As the massive hurricane barreled in, US experts downgraded it to a category one while warning that it still packed sustained winds of 85 miles (140 kilometers) per hour and was expected to dump up to nine inches (23 centimeters) of rain.
The Miami-based National Hurricane Center forecasts the eye of the storm will pass just west of the territory Sunday night, but that is little consolation because hurricanes in the Northern Hemisphere spin counter-clockwise and the strongest part of the storm is usually the northeast quadrant.
"This will cause Bermuda to get into the worst part of the hurricane, the northeast eyewall," BWS reported.
Bermuda's interior minister David Burch urged residents to protect life and property ahead of a storm he said could rival Hurricane Fabian, which claimed four lives and caused millions of dollars of damage when it struck in 2003.
"I really would like to stress to everyone in the country, it's important that you prepare and take the necessary steps. This storm is probably the worst we have seen," Burch said late Saturday.
The LF Wade International Airport canceled all flights to and from the island and said it would remain closed until Tuesday morning.
As of 1900 GMT about 16,000 of the island's 35,500 customers were without power, the energy company BELCO said in a blog post to the Royal Gazette newspaper.
A British Royal Navy ship and helicopter have been stationed offshore to assist in case of widespread damage.
As of 1800 GMT, the hurricane was 115 miles (185 kilometers) south of the island and churning northward at 16 miles (26 kilometers) per hour.
Prime Minister Ewart Brown did not mince words when spelling out the potential disaster in the island's Royal Gazette newspaper.
"Our country and our people have throughout our history, rarely faced the full fury of a storm of this magnitude, and as a people we will continue to pray that once again we will be spared," he said.
Residents prepared for the worst all week, boarding up windows and stocking up on supplies in anticipation of long bouts without power. A high school in the capital Hamilton has been converted into an emergency shelter.
There were no evacuation plans. Some tourists chose to leave earlier this week, while others are riding it out in their hotels.
The sheer size of the storm -- which has a wind field of nearly 600 miles (965 kilometers) -- means Bermuda is in for an extended battering.
Tropical storm force winds (40 miles, or 65 kilometers, per hour and higher) are expected for almost two days and hurricane force winds (above 74 miles per hour, or 119 kilometers per hour) are expected for about 10 hours.
While Bermuda's stone buildings are designed to withstand hurricanes, few people were taking unnecessary risks.
Clarabell White said she had her son board up the windows of her home in Pembroke on the island's north shore.
"Living so close to the sea, I'm not taking any chances," she said.
But Bermudans are no strangers to foul weather, and in Saint George's on the east end of the island, Shane Tucker and Andre Bean were riding out the hurricane on their boats.
"This is my home," Tucker said. "I've tied everything down and I'm staying on board. Hopefully it should be alright."
Normally referred to in the singular, Bermuda is actually a group of 138 islands, many of them small and uninhabited. The chain spans only 22 square miles (57 square kilometers).
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