By Sam Strangeways

HAMILTON Bermuda (Reuters) - Hurricane Gonzalo is set to hit the island of Bermuda on Friday, one of the strongest storms ever to threaten the Atlantic island, forecasters said.

Hurricane Gonzalo was swirling about 295 miles (475 km) south-southwest of the British territory, with sustained winds of up to 140 miles per hour (220 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

The Category 4 storm is on track to start bringing heavy rain and winds to the island by Friday morning, with full hurricane conditions to follow, forecasters said. Forecasters said on Thursday night that the hurricane's eye was expected to pass within just 35 miles (56 km) of the island.

Gonzalo was expected to slowly weaken throughout Friday and into the weekend, the center said, but added that "Gonzalo is expected to be a dangerous hurricane when it moves near Bermuda."

Bermuda, a popular tourist destination and insurance industry hub, is still recovering from Tropical Storm Fay, which swept over the island early on Sunday with near hurricane-force winds of 70 mph (110 kph).

Linda Cook, 40, from Warwick parish, described watching that storm blow the roofs off three houses on Sunday, and added that she didn't know what to expect from Gonzalo. "It's my first hurricane and I'm terrified," she said on Thursday.

It is the Atlantic's first Category 4 hurricane since 2011, according to Jeff Masters, a hurricane expert with private forecaster Weather Underground. He described Gonzalo in a blog post as "one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to threaten the island."

Hurricane Fabian, which pummeled the island in 2003 and caused $300 million in damage, was a Category 3 storm, he said.

Gonzalo has already wrought destruction in the Caribbean, killing an elderly sailor and damaging some three dozen vessels in St Maarten, the Dutch portion of Saint Martin island, the Daily Herald reported.

 

(Writing by Curtis Skinner; Editing by Dominic Evans)