CONCORD, Mass. — The massive blizzard that whipped New England this weekend with hurricane-force winds and crushing snow tested the readiness of authorities to deal with the increasing frequency of severe and record-breaking weather.
State officials in Massachusetts took the rare step of ordering cars off the streets in advance of the storm, while in Long Island, N.Y. hundreds of commuters were surprised and stranded by the blizzard, which dumped two to three feet of snow on the region.
The storm claimed at least four lives and added to the march of extreme weather events in the past year that includes Hurricane Sandy, a deep drought, the hottest U.S. year on record and widespread wildfires in the West.
Authorities in Boston said an 11-year-old boy died from carbon-monoxide poisoning when he and his father warmed up from snow shoveling by huddling inside a car whose exhaust was blocked by snow. In New York’s Columbia County, a man plowing on a tractor died when he ran off the road. A pedestrian in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., died after he was struck while walking along a snowy roadside, and a Connecticut man collapsed and died while shoveling snow, according to news reports.
The storm rumbled up the East Coast along the path of most of New England’s famed nor’easters. It lashed seafront towns, sent surges of water onto streets at high tide, and departed with tons of precious beachfront property.
But the combination of lucky timing — the storm arrived on a Friday — and advance warning gave residents plenty of time to hunker down and get off the roadways. That limited the problems and should allow a straightforward cleanup. Authorities praised Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s decision to order cars off the streets Friday, clearing the roads for emergency crews.
“I’m happy to report the city, so far, has weathered the storm well,” Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said at noon Saturday. New England’s largest city was dead center on the storm’s path but escaped major power outages and flooding.
Towns north and south of Boston fared worse. Waves chopped away the foundations of beachfront homes in Massachusetts communities of Sandwich, Hull and Scituate. Most of those homes were vacated by residents wary of the churning sea before a mid-morning high tide sent salty water racing through streets.
Power companies reported that 600,000 customers had lost power by Saturday morning. Utility crews remained poised inside motels, their bucket trucks parked, until the howling wind quieted to a whisper and the power workers could safely reach lines encased in ice and snow.
Governors in all the New England states declared states of emergency, opened up shelters, and shut down airports and public transport.
The storm rivaled the historic grip of the Blizzard of ’78, a 36-hour whiteout that New Englanders cite as a high-water mark of grim winters. This year’s storm plowed up the Atlantic coast and embraced Boston with sweeping arcs of snow and wind that reached into Vermont, New Hampshire and southern Maine on Friday night.
When it passed, it had delivered almost 25 inches at Boston’s official measuring station at Logan International Airport, 2 1/2 inches short of a record. But other towns in Massachusetts and New Hampshire reported snow totals of as high as 34 inches. Milford, Conn., recorded 38 inches.
Regardless of its place in the record books, the blizzard is likely to add to the discussion about the increasing frequency of unusual weather events globally, ranging from floods in Pakistan that sent 20 million people fleeing to the stunning melt-off of nearly half the Arctic ice cap, events consistent with climate change.
New York City, still recovering from Sandy’s staggering blow, “dodged a bullet,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Saturday morning.
“I think it’s fair to say that we were very lucky. We certainly avoided the worst of it, and our thoughts go out to the people of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine,” the mayor said. “If we can do anything to help them, we certainly will. . . . When we were in trouble, the country came to our aid, and we want to make sure we do the same.”
But parts of Long Island were hit with more than 30 inches of snow, catching commuters by surprise and stranding some in their cars for up to 12 hours.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked for help from other towns to help dig out eastern Long Island. About 200 people were stranded in cars Friday night in Suffolk County, according to the Associated Press, prompting questions of whether the roads should have been closed.
Patrick’s decision to order a ban on non-essential travel throughout Massachusetts on Friday afternoon was the first time such powers had been evoked in the state since the Blizzard of ’78, issued then after hundreds of stranded cars blocked cleanup of the roadway.
“This is not something one does lightly,” Patrick said after the worst of the storm had passed. “Considering what might have happened if we had not had that ban, I think we were pretty well served by it.”
Commuter trains and Amtrak from Boston made their last runs Friday afternoon, crowded with passengers who waited for the final chance to get home. Menino sent Boston city workers home and mobilized 600 plows and trucks to combat the storm.
For some, the weekend storm meant more holiday than hardship. Schools were canceled Friday, many employers called off work, and most others sent their staff home by midday to avoid commuting problems.
Kate Ruh, 19, brought her sleeping bag and inflatable mattress to work at the Dunkin’ Donuts in Concord, Mass., to stay Friday night. She was nearly snowed in Saturday, unable to swing the doors open for emergency crews because of snowdrifts.
“The snowplow guys asked if I was open. I said, ‘if you can get the doors open, I am,’ ” Ruh said, laughing.
New York City accumulated 8.1 inches of snow in Central Park. Hours after the storm passed, the main airports, John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia, reopened for limited service. Grand Central Terminal, which had canceled travel during the storm, resumed service on the Harlem and Hudson lines at 11:20 a.m. Saturday, but travel to hard-hit Connecticut had not been resumed.
In midtown Manhattan, motorists largely heeded Bloomberg’s advice to stay off the roads, leaving stretches of Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue virtually car-free in the early morning hours. But the streets quickly began to fill with tourists who came out to find the streets and sidewalks largely cleared of snow.
Steve Holton, 52, an Episcopal priest, and his wife, Charlotte, skied across Central Park. “It’s wonderful, as you can see: only six or eight inches, just right for cross-country skiing,” he said. “It’s perfect, just at freezing so the snow is going to last, at least until it turns into slush, which always happens in New York.”
The storm was popular at the ski resort in Stowe, Vt., which got about two feet of extra snow at the top of the mountain and 18 inches at the base. The snow was falling so fast Friday that workers grooming the trails were barely able to keep up. By Saturday, however, with the storm gone, the skiing was excellent.
Janet Bass of Bethesda, Md. was in Stowe for a long weekend with her husband and teenage daughter.
“We came up a day early [Thursday] to beat the storm, and it worked out great. Lots of powder . . . great ski conditions,” Bass said.
The 312-room Stowe Mountain Lodge was fully booked Saturday night and had only two rooms empty on Friday. Bookings for the rest of the season jumped.
“Typically what happens when we get a storm like this is the phone starts ringing immediately, and that’s what happened here, for future bookings,” said Richard McLennan, managing director of the lodge.
In the Boston area, many residents seemed to take the historic storm in stride, even as it buried their cars, shut down public transit, and closed nearly all shops and restaurants.
“I grew up in Maine. I don’t have a nervous breakdown when this happens,” said James Woodman, 55, a music composer, as he took a break from shoveling a path to his home in Cambridge, Mass.
He said he had stocked up in advance on four storm essentials: Triscuits, peanut butter, vodka and toilet paper. “I could last a week now,” he said.
Roads were nearly empty on Saturday, with only tow trucks, snowplows, city maintenance vehicles and the occasional van barreling through.
“It’s been 24 hours with no sleep,” said Louis Luciano of the Cambridge city traffic department as he paused in his truck from clearing parking lots and sidewalks.
Was he exhausted?
“We’re warriors!” he bellowed.
The drone of snowblowers filled the air as homeowners and maintenance workers struggled to carve paths through the snow. But amid the drudgery, there was also a sense of wonder at the magnitude and beauty of the snow.
At Harvard University, a few students were gliding across campus on cross-country skis. One stomped through drifts in snowshoes. Angela Zhang, 18, a freshman, was clutching a cafeteria tray and searching for the perfect hill.
“I’m from California,” she said. “This is the first one of these I’ve ever seen.”
Colum Lynch in New York; Mary Beth Sheridan in Cambridge, Mass.; and Robert McCartney in Stowe, Vt., contributed to this report.