Friday, August 21, 2009

HAMILTON, Bermuda — Bands of rain from Hurricane Bill pelted Bermuda as the storm roared over the open ocean Friday, causing flooding on the Atlantic island and spreading dangerous waves across the East Coast of the U.S.

The Category 2 storm’s maximum sustained winds had slipped to near 105 mph (165 kph), from 135 mph (217 kph) on Wednesday. Forecasters said the hurricane could regain intensity in the next two days. Its center is expected to pass between Bermuda and the U.S. shore Saturday.

Tourists gathered at the wealthy British territory’s pink sand beaches to watch the powerful surf. Many shrugged off the threat of the approaching storm, but it apparently cut short a beachfront vacation for U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

On the eastern U.S. coast, offshore waves of 20 feet (6 meters) or more and rip currents at the beach are expected over one of the summer’s last weekends. Forecasters warned boaters and swimmers from northeastern Florida to New England because of incoming swells as Bill passes far out to sea on a northward track for Canada’s Maritime provinces.

Some roads along Bermuda’s northern coast were flooded and traffic was heavy in Hamilton, the capital, as islanders bought groceries and ran other last-minute errands.

Bermuda’s airport, which is accessible only by a low causeway bridge, announced it was closing at 5:30 p.m. Friday for the duration of the storm. All ferry service was canceled until Sunday.

Bill was forecast to bring 1 to 3 inches (2.5 to 7.5 centimeters) of rain to Bermuda, with up to 5 inches (13 centimeters) in some areas.

Much of Bermuda, a wealthy offshore financial center, is solidly built and able to withstand rough weather. But storm tides are expected to raise water levels up to 3 feet (1 meter) along the shores and battering waves could cause significant erosion. Large swells from the storm also were affecting Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and the Bahamas.

Despite warning signs posted at Bermuda’s beaches, tourists gathered to watch waves pummel the sand and wash up to the dunes at Horseshoe Bay.

“We’ve never experienced a hurricane before, so it’s very interesting. The children are loving it,” said Kevin James, 54, a pharmaceutical company executive from London, who watched with his wife and two young children.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters the Clintons left Bermuda on Thursday night.

They arrived on Wednesday for a three- or four-day getaway. Local newspapers said they stayed at a luxury beachfront hotel, though their representatives refused to disclose any details.

Photographers spotted the former president golfing Thursday at Port Royal Golf Course, where four former Guantanamo Bay prisoners have been hired as groundskeepers following their release from the U.S. prison.

The former president and the prisoners, Muslims from western China known as Uighurs, did not have any contact, according to a lawyer for some of the men.

North Carolina was expecting flooding and beach erosion on the Outer Banks this weekend. The National Weather Service said Bill could cause water levels to rise 3 to 4 feet (0.9 to 1.2 meters) above normal and the ocean could spill over roads.

Emergency managers in New England warned boaters, swimmers and surfers to take added precautions this weekend, when waves are expected to swell to 35 feet (10.5 meters) off the coast.

The Three Belles Marina in Niantic, Connecticut, was securing boats and dragging in docks in anticipation of high waters, said Gary Julian, a customer service manager.

Waves of up to 20 feet (6 meters) are possible south of Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island and east of Cape Cod, and up to 35 feet (10.5 meters) on portions of the prime fishing area of Georges Bank, the weather service said.

President Obama and his family plan to travel to Martha’s Vineyard on Sunday for vacation.

Bermuda posted a tropical storm warning that means winds of 40 mph (64 kph) or more were expected to arrive within a day, and the island remained under a hurricane watch that indicated even stronger winds were possible within 36 hours.

Leon Borowski, vacationing with his wife at Bermuda’s Rosedon Hotel, said the hotel staff was putting away umbrellas and chairs but he was not worried.

“There’s no sense going home early. We can weather the storm for the day,” said Borowski, 71, of Bridgewater, New Jersey.

The center’s five-day track showed Bill staying well out to sea off the U.S. coast and inching closer to land off Canada’s Maritime provinces before veering back out into the North Atlantic.

On Friday evening, the storm was centered about 235 miles (380 kilometers) south-southwest of Bermuda, or about 640 miles (1035 kilometers) southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and was moving north-northwest at about 20 mph (32 kph).

Bill is the first Atlantic hurricane this year after a quiet start to the season that runs from June through November. The Miami center lowered its Atlantic hurricane outlook on Aug. 6 after no named tropical storms developed in the first two months.

The revised prediction was for three to six hurricanes, with one or two becoming major storms with winds over 110 mph. Researchers at Colorado State University have also lowered their Atlantic season forecast to four hurricanes, two of them major.

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