HAMILTON (Reuters) - Hurricane Igor pounded Bermuda with ferocious winds, waves and rain on Sunday, toppling trees and power lines as the Atlantic island chain felt the force of one of the worst storms ever to affect it.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Igor, packing top winds of 80 mph, was closing in on the small British overseas territory, a popular tourist destination and wealthy global insurance center located more than 600 miles east of the U.S. East Coast.
At 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT), Igor was about 85 miles southwest of Bermuda, moving north at 15 miles per hour.
The Miami-based center called Igor “very large”, with hurricane-force winds extending out about 90 miles from its core, and radar images showed its swirling shape dwarfing the 21 square-mile (54 square km) island group.
Driving winds bent trees, felling many, and whipped up dangerous debris as surf battered the shoreline. Power lines were also knocked out, interrupting service to nearly 16,000 customers -- nearly half of the territory’s electricity users -- according to the local power utility Belco.
The hurricane’s core would pass near Bermuda, to the west, later on Sunday, forecasters said, adding hurricane conditions would continue overnight.
Bermuda Premier Ewart Brown had warned residents to brace for “one of the worst hurricanes to ever threaten our shores,” but there were no immediate reports of casualties.
“The rain is coming in sideways, basically it is very rough. Trees are down and there are branches blowing all over the place and there is lots of debris flying,” Mark Tatem, a photographer for The Royal Gazette newspaper, wrote in a live hurricane chatroom set up by the paper.
Several roads in the capital Hamilton were flooded.
David Saul, a 70-year-old businessman whose home overlooks Devonshire Bay in the center of the island chain, earlier reported seeing “stupendous” waves.
“The waves are thrashing on the road,” he said.
Bermuda’s roads were deserted and churches had canceled services. Most shops and restaurants in the capital were boarded up and residents had bought up emergency supplies such as fuel, batteries, food and candles.
Local authorities on Sunday closed the causeway which links L.F. Wade International Airport and the eastern parish of St. George’s to the rest of Bermuda. The airport was also closed.
The British Royal Navy’s destroyer HMS Manchester was on standby with a helicopter.
“It’s a ghost town out there,” said vacationer Tipper Raven of London, referring to the capital Hamilton.
The Bermuda government has warned residents to prepare for an impact similar to that of Hurricane Fabian in 2003, which killed four people and caused millions of dollars of damage.
Hurricane expert Jeff Masters of private U.S. forecaster Weather Underground said Igor had lost some of its original power due to the collapse of its eyewall -- a hurricane’s most damaging inner zone -- earlier on Sunday.
He wrote in a blog that buildings in Bermuda, which has a rigorous building code, were some of the best-constructed in the world, and were generally located at higher elevations out of storm surge zones, which would help limit damage from Igor.
The hurricane center predicted total rainfall of 6 to 9 inches over the Atlantic territory and said Igor’s storm surge could produce significant coastal flooding and destructive waves, particularly along the south coast.
Large sea swells would also affect the U.S. East Coast through Monday, it added.
East of Igor, weakening Tropical Storm Julia posed no threat to land, and it was expected to dissipate on Tuesday, the hurricane center said.
In Mexico over the weekend, the remnants of Hurricane Karl dissipated over the mountains of south central Mexico, after killing at least eight people, emergency workers said.
Karl appeared to have spared Mexican oil operations from major damage after sweeping through the Bay of Campeche, where Mexico produces more than two-thirds of its 2.55 million barrels per day of crude output.
Additional reporting by Katharine Jackson in Hamilton, Bermuda, and Luis Manuel Lopez in Villahermosa, Mexico; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Cynthia Osterman