HAMILTON, Bermuda (AFP) - Hurricane Gonzalo made a direct hit on Bermuda as a strong category 2 storm, unleashing driving rains and punishing winds that plunged thousands of terrified residents into the dark.
Gonzalo, which has already killed one person and caused property damage in the Caribbean, was buffeting the British overseas territory with maximum sustained winds of 175 kmh per hour, forecasters said early on Saturday.
At 5am GMT, the storm was about 113km north-east of Bermuda and moving away from the island - home to about 65,000 people - the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC) said. "Dangerous Hurricane Gonzalo still hitting Bermuda with hurricane-force wind gusts," it warned.
The island's only newspaper, The Royal Gazette, reported that 31,200 homes - or a majority of Bermudians - were without power.
Flooding and storm surges were reported all around the island, the report said.
Residents reported a strange calm as the eye of the storm passed late Friday evening, after which the second half of Gonzalo again lashed the island with pounding rains and potentially destructive winds.
Ms Melanie Fullerton, in the parish of Devonshire, said it was the strongest storm she had known in more than a decade.
"I have weathered several storms, including Fabian (in 2003)... I am so terrified," she told AFP via Facebook.
"We are experiencing 134 mph (216 kmh) gusts from the inside wall of the hurricane and we are expected to experience up to 100 mph (161 kmh) winds until 2am. The whole island just wants it to be over. Pray for us!"
Gonzalo caused widespread disruption as it closed in.
Schools, businesses, grocery stores and government offices all closed early, and many people boarded up the windows of their homes and placed sandbags outside in preparation.
Officials in Bermuda had urged residents to stay indoors and off the roads.
"I wish everyone all the best for the next 24 hours. Good luck - and look after each other," said Governor George Fergusson, the representative of the British crown in the archipelago.
Bermuda's international airport shuttered operations before the storm hit and was not expected to reopen until Saturday at the earliest, causing holiday misery for thousands of well-heeled tourists.
Gonzalo's wrath had already been felt in the Virgin Islands, the northern coasts of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and portions of the Bahamas, as well as the southeastern coast of the United States.
The days leading up to the arrival of Gonzalo saw a run on local stores in Bermuda, as residents stocked up with provisions and hurricane survival kits.
Generators were sold out in most places, with Bermuda anticipating a long stretch without power. Many people had only just had their electrical supply restored following Tropical Storm Fay the previous weekend.
The Bermuda Weather Service warned the storm's impact could be as severe as Hurricane Fabian in 2003, which killed four people and caused US$300 million (S$382.5 million) worth of damage.
Many boats in the harbours had been pulled out of the water, while British Royal Navy warship HMS Argyll was heading to the island to help with expected post-Gonzalo relief efforts.
Despite its potential for destruction, Premier Michael Dunkley sought to reassure residents, many of whom are well practiced in the art of storm preparedness.
"I'm pleased to see preparations people have made. Bermuda is well prepared now, people are being as safe as they can," he said in a radio address.
"Have patience, today is going to be a long day. Hunker down, we will ride this through."
Gonzalo's only known victim so far was an octogenarian sailor killed in the Dutch territory of St Maarten.
As Gonzalo barreled over Bermuda, Hurricane Ana stalked Hawaii, triggering a tropical storm watch, with forecasters predicting it would pass near or over the island chain over the weekend.
Gonzalo was the seventh storm of the Atlantic season, which stretches from June to November.
Hurricane Cristobal left at least four people dead in late August when it thrashed the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos Islands and the Dominican Republic with heavy rains causing serious flooding.