HAMILTON Bermuda (Reuters) - Hurricane Gonzalo slammed into Bermuda on Friday, knocking out most of the electricity as it lashed the tiny Atlantic island chain with pounding surf, torrential rain and howling wind, but there were no immediate reports of injuries.
The strongest storm to sweep the subtropical British territory in a decade made full landfall at about 8:30 p.m. as the 35-mile-wide (56 km) eye of the storm crossed the south-central coast of Bermuda, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami reported.
The Category 2 hurricane was packing sustained winds of up to 110 mph (175 kph), down from 140 mph (225 kph) earlier in the day, but it remained a dangerous storm, forecasters said. Hurricane-force winds extended up to 60 miles (95 km) from its center as it bore down on Bermuda.
Gonzalo roared ashore just five days after Bermuda, a low-lying archipelago occupying just 21 square miles (54 sq km) and home to 65,000 people, had been struck by a tropical storm, serving a one-two punch to the islands.
While damage was believed to widespread, authorities were unable to immediately get into the streets to assess the full extent, said Sergeant Russann Francis, a staff officer for the fire department in Hamilton, the capital.
"In terms of injuries, we haven't had any calls come in at this time," she added.
Passage of the hurricane's eye provided a lull of an hour or two during which the skies cleared, the rain and winds ceased and an utter stillness prevailed, broken only by the whistling of tree frogs.
The clammy night air, heavy with the scent of saltwater, grew steadily warmer and more humid before winds began to pick up again, signaling an end to the brief calm as the storm's center moved offshore and began to lash the island anew.
Seeing television pictures of curiosity seekers venturing outdoors during the interlude, police issued a notice urging residents to stay indoors avoid being caught when the storm's fury resumed.
Flooding was reported in some areas and many banana trees had been knocked over. The islands' only power company, Bermuda Electric Light Co. (BELCO), reported nearly 31,000 customers were without electricity, out of 36,000 metered connections.
"Where I am, we are hearing rain lashing at the walls and windows, which are starting to leak, and intense gusts of wind pounding the building, making the glass pulsate," said Susan McGrath-Smith, spokeswoman for BELCO, who rode out the storm at company headquarters with her two dogs.
"We have also heard transformers explode outside," she added.
Gonzalo peaked on Thursday as a Category 4 hurricane, the first in the Atlantic since 2011, with 145 mph winds (230 kph), and was expected to continue weakening into the weekend as it moved northward over cooler waters.
The Hurricane Center said the storm was expected to pass just to the southeast of Newfoundland on Sunday.
Bermuda, a tourist destination and affluent insurance industry hub about 640 miles (1,030 km) off the coast of North Carolina, was still recovering from Tropical Storm Fay, which swept over the islands early on Sunday with near hurricane-force winds of 70 mph (110 kph), and later turned into a hurricane.
As Gonzalo closed in on Friday, the governor of Bermuda, George Fergusson, advised residents to stay off the roads and heed emergency bulletins.
"I wish everyone all the best," he said in an emergency broadcast. "Good luck, and look after each other.”
A British Royal Navy warship, HMS Argyll, headed for Bermuda to help with post-Gonzalo relief efforts, the government said.
Jeff Masters, a hurricane expert with private forecaster Weather Underground, said Bermuda was among the best equipped places in the Atlantic for weathering such storms, in part because of strict building codes.
Hurricane Fabian, which pummeled the island in 2003 and caused $300 million in damage, was a Category 3 storm, he said.
The latest hurricane forced NASA to delay by at least three days its next cargo run to the International Space Station, which flies about 260 miles (418 km) above Earth because key tracking equipment is on Bermuda.
Gonzalo has already wrought destruction in the Caribbean, tearing off roofs in Antigua, killing an elderly sailor and damaging some three dozen vessels in St. Maarten.
Additional reporting by Leanne McGrath in Hamilton, David Adams in Miami, Colleen Jenkins in North Carolina and Irene Klotz in Cape Canaveral; Writing by David Adams and Steve Gorman; Editing by Toni Reinhold, Ken Wills, Robert Birsel