HAMILTON Bermuda (Reuters) - Hurricane Gonzalo scored a direct hit on Bermuda Friday night into Saturday morning, pummeling the tiny island chain with rain and howling winds that downed trees and knocked out power but spared it catastrophic damage or death.
Much of the Atlantic archipelago, a tourist destination and affluent insurance industry hub about 640 miles (1,030 km) off the coast of North Carolina, was still without electricity late on Saturday and debris blocked many roads.
Only minor injuries were reported after the strongest storm to sweep the subtropical British territory in a decade hurtled through with maximum sustained winds of around 110 miles per hour (175 kph). The storm made landfall on Friday night with hurricane-force winds extending up to 60 miles (95 km) from its center, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
The British Navy vessel HMS Argyll arrived in Bermuda on Saturday afternoon to assist with aerial reconnaissance and other tasks, Bermuda officials said in a statement.
There was extensive property damage across the islands, including roof damage and flooding at the main hospital, but it was "all things that can be replaced and restored," Premier Michael Dunkley said in a statement.
“I think all of Bermuda would agree that we took a licking. We are a bit bruised," Dunkley said in a radio broadcast, according to the local Royal Gazette. But, he added, "all in all we came out of this storm much better than we expected."
By Saturday evening, Gonzalo was north of Bermuda, and about 470 miles (760 km) southwest of Cape Race in Newfoundland, Canada, with sustained winds of 90 mph (150 kph), the hurricane center said.
Bermuda Electric Light Co. had restored power to thousands of customers, though nearly 15,300 out of 36,000 metered connections remained without electricity on Saturday evening, the company said.
Gonzalo roared ashore just five days after Tropical Storm Fay passed by Bermuda, dishing out a one-two punch.
"The center of the eye went right over them,” said Chris Landsea, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center. “It was a direct hit.”
Gonzalo knocked instruments offline at the Bermuda Radio Maritime Operations Center in St. Georges and at the Bermuda International Airport, the hurricane center reported. The airport was expected to re-open as early as Sunday afternoon, officials said.
The hurricane's fierce winds capsized some boats in a dockyard, felled electricity poles and road signs and blew out windows.
The Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo reported substantial damage, including a roof torn off an exhibit and serious coastal erosion, but all its animals were safe.
Gonzalo peaked on Thursday as a Category 4 hurricane, the first of such strength in the Atlantic since 2011, before weakening. It was expected to continue weakening as it moved with increased speed northward over cooler waters.
Large swells generated by Gonzalo were still affecting parts of the U.S. East Coast, Atlantic Canada, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands, causing life-threatening surf and rip currents, the hurricane center said. A tropical storm watch was in effect for areas of Newfoundland between Arnold's Cove and Chapel's Cove.
Gonzalo is expected to pass near the coast of Newfoundland on Saturday night or early Sunday, hurricane center forecasters 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.
Hurricanes range in severity from Category 1 to catastrophic Category 5.
Earlier, Gonzalo wrought destruction in the Caribbean, tearing off roofs in Antigua, and killing an elderly sailor and damaging some three dozen vessels in St. Maarten.
Additional reporting by David Adams in Miami and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Curtis Skinner and Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Jane Baird, Crispian Balmer and James Dalgleish