Powerful Hurricane Gonzalo roared toward the tiny British territory of Bermuda as residents braced for damaging winds and life-threatening storm surge, while the prime minister urged people in low-lying areas to consider moving to higher ground.

The storm is expected to pass within 46 kilometres of the island Friday, close enough to be considered a direct hit, the Bermuda Weather Service said. Tropical storm conditions should begin by Friday morning, forecasters said.

"This hurricane is a large storm, and we should expect at least 24 hours of storm-force winds," Premier Michael Dunkley said.

The hurricane approached just days after Tropical Storm Fay damaged homes and knocked down trees and power lines in Bermuda, with 1,500 homes still without power late Thursday.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said conditions in Bermuda, where a hurricane warning is in effect, would begin deteriorating later Friday morning. At 5 a.m. ET, Gonzalo was centred about 385 kilometres south-southwest of Bermuda, packing top sustained winds of 215 km/h.

Hurricane Gonzalo

Hurricane Gonzalo is swirling towards Bermuda, prompting the prime minister to urge people in low-lying areas to consider moving to higher ground. (NASA/NOAA/Reuters)

"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, which hit Cuba as a Category 3 storm.

'We build for hurricanes'

Fox said the government opened a high school as a shelter but noted that Bermuda is known for structures that can withstand heavy storms.

"We build for hurricanes," he said. "It's part of the building code."

Bermuda, an island of roughly 70,000 people that lies 1,400 kilometres east of the U.S. state of South Carolina, has one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world.

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 up essentials at the last minute.

"Some people seem to have left it until the end to get things," said Melissa Trott, 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, 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 people moved boats to safer areas. While some were able to store them on dry land, others relied on storm moorings and hoped for the best.

Kimberley Zuill, Bermuda Weather Service director, said Gonzalo's path and duration would be similar to Fabian's, and that seas would reach 11 to 14 metres on Friday. Forecasters said destructive waves could cause significant flooding on the island, which is about one-third the size of Washington, D.C. Some eight to 15 centimetres of rain was predicted.

As a precaution, authorities evacuated two hotels along Bermuda's southern coast, with guests either flying out or being placed in another hotel. The government said that on late Friday morning it would close a causeway that links the eastern end of Bermuda with the mainland.

The government closed all public schools by Thursday afternoon and expected to close the island's international airport Thursday night.

"Bermuda, we are prepared," Dunkley said.

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, parts of the Bahamas and the U.S. East Coast from North Carolina southward.


With files from CBC News and The Canadian Press