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Bermuda braces as Florence becomes hurricane

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HAMILTON, Bermuda (AP) -- Florence intensified into the second hurricane of the Atlantic season Sunday as it neared Bermuda, where residents stocked up on provisions and formed long lines at gas stations in the lashing rain.

Florence was expected to pass "very near" the tiny British territory Monday, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. But it was too early to tell whether it will make a direct hit.

Preparations to protect life and property "should be rushed to completion," the hurricane center said. (Watch Bermuda prepare for Florence -- 2:07)

Shopkeepers and homeowners boarded up windows and doors, with one closed flower shop bearing the sign: "We've gone away to chase away Florence. Back Tuesday."

The Category 1 hurricane, which had had maximum sustained winds near 90 mph Sunday evening, was expected to become a Category 2 hurricane as it passes Bermuda, according to the hurricane center.

With hurricane-force winds that extend up to 60 miles from the storm's eye, even a near-miss could cause substantial damage, forecasters said.

The storm was expected to veer from the U.S. coast as it turns north toward Bermuda, 640 miles (1,030 kilometers) east of the U.S. But forecasters said it was creating high surf and dangerous rip currents in the Bahamas and along parts of America's eastern seaboard.

"Those waves will affect a good portion of the U.S. East Coast from basically Florida all the way up to the Cape Cod area" starting Sunday through the early part of next week, hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart said.

In Bermuda, skies turned gray and waves began to build Sunday morning as gusty winds blew in spits of rain and usually tranquil ports turned into white-capped harbors. With the storm thundering toward the archipelago of tiny islands, residents had hauled their yachts onto beaches or secured their moorings.

Authorities urged residents to stock up on hurricane supplies, secure their homes, lawn furniture and any other loose items and stay home to keep the roads clear for emergency vehicles.

Bermuda issued a hurricane warning for the island chain of 65,000 residents. The hurricane center said tropical storm force winds were already affecting the mid-Atlantic territory by Sunday afternoon.

At 11 p.m. ET, the center of the hurricane was roughly 120 miles (193 kilometers) southwest of Bermuda and moving toward the north at about 14 mph. Bermuda was expected to get 5 to 8 inches of rain, with up to 10 inches possible in some areas.

Deputy Premier Ewart Brown said the anticipated "ferocious impact" of Florence would serve as "a test of our resilience as a country." He reminded islanders of the rebuilding effort in 2003, when Hurricane Fabian -- the strongest storm to hit Bermuda in 50 years -- killed four people, tore the roofs off several homes and ruined golf courses.

Bermuda International Airport was closed late Saturday and was expected to remain shuttered until Tuesday morning. Flights from New York and Miami scheduled to arrive late Saturday were canceled.

All ferry and bus services were halted. The territory's public utility announced that residents should prepare for prolonged electricity outages. Public schools and government offices were ordered closed Monday.

Authorities were keeping a part-time regiment on call to help respond to the hurricane at strategic points.

Acting Police Commissioner Roseanda Young said all tourists were given the opportunity to leave. "Those still here have chosen to stay," Young said.

Several hotels, playing up the British territory's much-vaunted ability to withstand a fierce storm, planned "hurricane parties" for their remaining guests.

Some Bermudians, such as Ben Frith, 42, and his two children, seemed more excited than concerned about the advance of the storm.

"The kids have been going stir crazy waiting for the hurricane," Frith said, as his two sons -- Hayden, 6, and Luca, 4 -- ran excitedly along a beach in St. David's Island with winds howling and white-crested waves smacking the sand. "We were expecting it to be a bit more blowy."

Florence follows on the heels of Ernesto, which was briefly the season's first hurricane before weakening and drenching the U.S. East Coast last week. The storm was blamed for nine deaths in the United States and two in Haiti.

Florence developed in the peak of hurricane season over warm Atlantic water, the source of energy for storm development this time of year. Forecasters said the waters are not as warm as last year's storm season, which had a record 28 named storms and 15 hurricanes, including Katrina.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Hurricane Florence is expected to pass near Bermuda on Monday morning.

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