By Sam Strangeways
HAMILTON, Bermuda (Reuters) - Hurricane Nicole plowed directly into Bermuda on Thursday, causing widespread damage and knocking out power to most homes and businesses while apparently sparing the tiny Atlantic island chain any severe injuries or fatalities, government officials said.
Nicole, the strongest hurricane to sweep the subtropical British territory in more than a decade, made landfall before noon, packing sustained winds of up to 120 miles per hour (195 kph) and ranking as a fierce Category 3 storm on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
By then the low-lying archipelago, occupying just 21 square miles (54 sq km) and home to more than 65,000 people, had been lashed for hours with torrential rain, hurricane-force winds and pounding surf.
In the village of Flatts, just outside Bermuda's capital city of Hamilton, towering palm trees were bent over virtually at 90-degree angles in the howling winds, and boats moored at a nearby inlet rocked in the heavy waves.
"For a storm this size, I'd say we're blessed," Bermuda Premier Michael Dunkley told Reuters by telephone. "I don't think any part of the island was spared the wrath of Nicole. But ... it could have been much worse."
The storm, with an eye about 30 miles (48 km) across, weakened after moving back into the open sea and was downgraded to a Category 2 hurricane, its maximum sustained winds diminished to 110 miles per hour (175 kph).
The Royal Gazette newspaper said the storm sheared rooftops from buildings, uprooted trees, flooded homes and downed power lines as it slammed into Bermuda, a major tourist destination and affluent insurance industry hub about 640 miles (1,030 km) off the coast of North Carolina.
Passage of the hurricane's eye provided a lull for about an hour, during which the skies cleared, the rain and winds ceased and some islanders emerged from boarded-up homes to stroll outside briefly. One person was even seen riding a bicycle through the streets, strewn with debris and vegetation.
"At this point, there is no indication of any loss of life or serious injuries, Dunkley said. He said property damage was widespread, "but it's not significant where it's going to take weeks and months" to recover.
The Bermuda Electric Light Company (BELCO) said that nearly 26,000 customers were without power, roughly 85 percent of its customers, and that many power lines and utility poles had been knocked down.
By early evening, winds had diminished to below tropical storm-strength and repair crews were able to venture safely into the streets to begin assessing damage as the storm moved farther from shore, Dunkley said. The international airport there was expected to reopen on Friday, he said.
Bermuda is often in the paths of Atlantic storms and has extensive experience in handling them. The last hurricane to score a direct hit on the island territory was Gonzalo, which made landfall as a Category 2 storm days after the island was hit by Tropical Storm Fay.
Hurricane Fabian, which pummeled the island in 2003 and caused $300 million in damage, was a Category 3 storm.
Nicole shot through Bermuda just a week after Hurricane Matthew tore a path of destruction through impoverished Haiti en route to the United States, where it triggered severe flooding. Matthew, which briefly rose to the maximum Category 5 intensity, killed more than 1,000 people in Haiti, and left more than 30 dead in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.
(Reporting by Sandra Maler in Washington; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney and Sandra Maler)