Wild winds of change worry Bermudians

Phil Davison in Hamilton says Hurricane Felix may do more than disrupt the independence poll

Bermuda's motto is Quo fata ferunt (Where the fates will lead us). Not for the first time, the fate of the islands today is inextricably linked with Atlantic storms as Hurricane Felix disrupts their referendum on whether to break away from Britain.

Emergency services said last night that Felix would arrive earlier than expected, with the first powerful hurricane winds hitting at 6pm local time, 10pm British time, and the worst onslaught arriving at midnight. Fast winds already caused destruction late yesterday, ripping light roofs off small buildings, uprooting trees and blocking some roads. An elderly couple, Peggy and Toby Davis, had a narrow escape when a 65 foot pine tree was blown on to their bedroom roof, sending rubble from the roof onto Mrs Davis bed .

"I thought it was a bomb," Mrs Davis, 79, said. "I was in the kitchen. I had just come back from delivering meals on wheels to the less fortunate," she said. "Toby was in the bathroom filling the tub because of the expected power cuts. If this had happened at night, I'd almost certainly have been killed."

At a meeting of the island's emergency services late yesterday afternoon, premier Sir John Swann said he hoped the independence referendum could go ahead but as the ocean surged, blocking several roads, it looked increasingly dangerous for Bermudians to venture out.

One of the areas worst hit by pounding waves was the Pink Beach area in the wealthy Tuckers Town. The waves pounded over the main coast roads, making it impassable. and police warned residents to stay away

The advance winds scattered debris and tree branches across roads, but most of the island's houses appeared top be weathering the initial storm failry well. Most are made of concrete blocks or tough Bermuda limestone. Bermudians collect their drinking water from their limestone roofs.

At Mermaid Beach yesterday afternoon, three colourful parrots in a cage pined as massive waves surged over the rocks outside the Mermaid gift shop, now deserted, where they are usually a tourist attraction.

It was an earlier hurricane that led to the islands' settlement and eventual British colonisation in the first place. In 1609 a group of English merchants led by Sir George Somers waded ashore here after their ship the Sea Venture was wrecked en route to the new settlements in Virginia. Unlike the Spaniards who discovered the islands a century earlier, some of the Englishmen stayed, pleasantly puzzled by the fact that the uninhabited islands were alive with tasty pigs.

The Spaniards had left two pairs of pigs behind as potential sustenance if ever forced to stop off on the way back from the Americas. Hence, the islands' early coins carried the image of a hog rather than of the English monarch.

As Felix bore down on the islands last night at the remarkably slow pace of nine miles per hour Sir John, who pushed the independence idea through parliament, said the referendum could not be formally postponed without legislation. He said polling stations would try to open their doors as a legal formality, even if they had to close and reopen in future days to complete a full 11 hours of scheduled voting time.

In practice, Sir John's attempt to keep the vote on track could cause chaos. Polling was supposed to start at 10am today but the thought of venturing out to vote in 125 mph winds seemed ludicrous, if not hazardous.

Although the eye of the storm appeared likely to pass 40 miles west of the islands, its surrounding winds stretched 100 miles to each side, meaning the entire 20-mile-long island strip might bear the brunt. In Bermuda, you're never more than a mile from the sea, meaning the entire shoreline could be battered from the western Dockyard area, where the Royal Navy used to be based, to the millionaires' playground of Tuckers Town in the east.

The direction of the hurricane's rotation also meant its north-eastern corner - the part likely to hit Bermuda - would be its most powerful.

Offices, businesses, ferries and harbours closed down at noon yesterday as the hurricane's advance winds arrived with driving rain. Dramatic surf surged over beaches such as Horseshoe Bay on the southern shore. In Ye Olde Cock and Feather pub on Hamilton's central Front Street, the few tourists who had opted not to leave knocked back "Hurricane Felix shots" - Southern Comfort, grenadine and milk - at three dollars a go while the voice of Bob Marley repeatedly told them to "don't worry 'bout a thing". Bermuda International Airport closed down at 11am yesterday.

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