By Jim Loney
Powerful Hurricane Bill, a dangerous Category 4 storm with 135 mph winds, raged across the open Atlantic on Wednesday, days from land but on a path that could menace Canada's eastern provinces next week.
Sweeping past the Caribbean islands and posing no threat to U.S. oil and gas installations in the Gulf of Mexico, the first hurricane of the 2009 Atlantic season was expected to charge between the U.S. East Coast and Bermuda, well offshore.
Residents of Bermuda, a mid-Atlantic British territory and reinsurance capital, were warned to prepare for the storm. The latest forecast track issued by the U.S. National Hurricane Center would take Bill more than 100 miles to the west.
But Bill's massive size -- tropical storm force winds of 39 to 73 mph extend up to 230 miles from its center -- meant Bermuda would get a good dose of heavy weather, forecasters said.
"All (computer) models keep the storm between the United States and Bermuda. Exactly how close it comes to either of those is up for debate," said National Hurricane Center forecaster Eric Blake. "The average error (in the forecast track) is 200 miles at about 3 days."
"Bermuda is expected to see large swells and areas of heavy rain and high winds. Hopefully the core of the hurricane will stay offshore," he said.
The Bermuda Sun newspaper reported that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, planned to fly to Bermuda on Wednesday for a private vacation of three to four days at a beach resort. The State Department declined to officially confirm where Clinton was.
HEAVY SURF EXPECTED ON U.S. EAST COAST
Forecasters said Bill might get stronger. Its top winds were expected to peak at about 145 mph on Thursday.
Hurricanes of Category 3 or higher on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale are considered "major" storms and are the most destructive type.
The well-defined eye of Bill was located about 970 miles south-southeast of Bermuda at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) on Wednesday and the system was moving toward the northwest at 20 mph, the hurricane center said.
Its curving forecast track would take it to a position hundreds of miles (km) east of Miami by early Friday, and well off New York by Sunday.
"How close it gets to the New England coast, there's still the usual uncertainty in that long time period," former NHC director Max Mayfield said. "But the core of the hurricane, most of the models indicate it's going to remain off the coast."
Forecasters said dangerous swells and life-threatening rip currents could affect the northern Caribbean islands, the Bahamas, Bermuda and the U.S. East Coast in the next few days.
The latest forecast track from the hurricane center would take Bill slightly closer to the U.S. East. It shows the storm just south of Nova Scotia by Sunday afternoon as a Category 2 hurricane and moving directly over Newfoundland after that. But five days in advance, the forecast has an average error of several hundred miles.