Tired Irene slaps N.E.

700,000 lose power in Mass.; Vt. hit hard with 1 feared dead

By David Abel
Globe Staff / August 29, 2011

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Fierce winds, pelting rains, and a storm surge barreled into Massachusetts yesterday as Hurricane Irene weakened into a tropical storm, not as ferocious as once feared but still powerful enough to uproot trees, snap power lines, and threaten dams.

Almost 700,000 electric customers were in the dark last night, and roads big and small turned into ponds, forcing traffic to be diverted.

There were no reports of deaths or serious injuries in Massachusetts. In the Vermont town of Wilmington, officials were looking last night for a woman reportedly swept away in the Deerfield River.

By the time Irene reached New England, it had carved a vast path of destruction, claiming at least 21 lives along the Eastern Seaboard, flooding swaths of Philadelphia, and leaving more than 4.5 million homes and businesses without power.

“We’re fortunate that Irene had weakened some before it got to Massachusetts,’’ said Governor Deval Patrick in a telephone interview.

As rain persisted into the evening and rivers rose in the western part of the state, he and other state officials said the National Guard helped hundreds of people in Ashfield, Charlemont, Greenfield, and North Adams evacuate their homes and warned residents in the area to be ready for additional evacuation orders.

“It’s really important that people pay attention and be prepared to move quickly,’’ he said, noting that the Deerfield, Green, Connecticut, and Housatonic rivers could swell over the next 24 hours.

And the storm wasn’t finished once it departed the state. It walloped Vermont and drew the National Guard to respond to five towns because of “extremely dangerous rising water,’’ emergency officials reported.

At 10 last night, the downtown was empty and two of the main roads bisecting historic Brattleboro were closed, with traffic detoured through side streets. The western part of the town had been cut off since the morning, and several firefighters sent to rescue stranded residents were briefly trapped by the flood waters.

“We had flooding in areas we have not had flooding in before,’’ said Barbara Sondag, Brattleboro’s town manager.

At nightfall, the state capital, Montpelier, appeared to be bearing the brunt of Irene.

“This storm has or is going to hit the entire state,’’ said Mark Bosma, spokesman for Vermont Emergency Management. “That’s rare. It’s usually localized, [but this is] a pretty intense situation.’’

In Massachusetts, public safety and transportation officials reported widespread traffic woes. State Police closed Interstate 91 between Sunderland and Greenfield in the western part of the state, and officials said the highway would remain closed for several days because of flooding from the Deerfield River and a surge of water from a dam in Rowe, where officials released a large volume of water to relieve pressure.

There were also reports of breaching at the Big Robin Dam in Sherwood Forest in Becket, but officials said they did not find a rupture. “The integrity of that dam is still being evaluated,’’ said David Procopio, a spokesman for the State Police, in a statement.

Numerous other roads in Western Massachusetts were also flooded, including sections of Routes 8, 8A, 2, 9, 20, 112, and 23. In Greater Boston, Storrow Drive and Memorial Drive flooded as the storm darkened the daytime sky, State Police officials said. Fallen trees blocked a portion of Interstate 93 in Braintree, Route 1 in Dedham, and other major roads across the state.

More than 150 fallen trees blocked MBTA tracks. The transit agency curtailed all service at 8 in the morning, but vowed that trains and buses will be back on their regular schedules this morning.

Amtrak said it was canceling service today between Boston and Philadelphia, as well as Acela Express service between Boston and Washington, because of flooding and debris on the tracks.

Tolls suspended yesterday on the Massachusetts Turnpike, the Tobin Bridge, and the tunnels to Logan International Airport were restored late last night.

Neither MBTA nor other transportation officials would say how much it cost the state in terms of lost revenue.

“The bottom line is it wasn’t about money,’’ MBTA general manager Richard Davey said. “It was about passenger safety, and it was about employee safety.’’

As of 11 p.m., National Grid reported that 430,554 customers were out of power, while NStar said about 250,000 of its customers had lost power. Unitil Corp. said 2,700 of its customers were without electricity, and Western Massachusetts Electric Co. had 10,879 without power. It wasn’t clear how long it would take to repair power lines.

State officials said there were nearly 350 people in 64 shelters set up across the state.

Scott MacLeod, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said it was too early to provide an estimate of the storm’s financial toll. The state planned to send 15 teams throughout the state at dawn to assess damage, in addition to the 2,500 National Guard members already deployed.

“It could have been a lot worse,’’ MacLeod said.

In Boston, officials received about 500 calls for trees and branches that had fallen, with at least a dozen falling on homes.

In Dorchester, Newman Nerestant, 18, got a rude awakening when a large tree branch crashed through the roof of his home, landing just a few feet from where he was sleeping.

“I just didn’t know what was going on,’’ he said.

When the branch landed on an empty mattress within steps from his bed, he said, “I just got up and ran.’’

About 5,000 NStar customers in Boston lost power; company officials told the city that electricity would be restored within 36 hours.

“We’re very lucky that we had no significant injuries,’’ said Dot Joyce, a spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino. “The mayor’s focus now is making sure the city gets cleaned up and people can get back to work and to their daily business as quickly as possible.’’

Bill Simpson, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Taunton, said the storm’s outer bands first hit Massachusetts at about 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, when it was still a Category 1 hurricane. The last bands were expected to have cleared the state by midnight.

Shelburne Falls received at least 8.5 inches of rain, the most in the state. Boston received only about an inch.

The state’s highest gusts - 81 miles an hour - were measured at 11:35 a.m. at the Blue Hill Observatory in Milton. Boston’s strongest gusts were 63 miles per hour at 11:10 am.

“This is what we expected,’’ Simpson said. “It could have been worse, and thank God the storm went just enough inland to weaken it slightly.’’

Yet the storm’s destructive power left its mark across the state.

In New Bedford, Mayor Scott Lang had urged residents to leave low-lying coastal areas, and officials scrambled to evacuate dozens of elderly and disabled residents of a 10-story downtown building damaged by the storm’s gusty winds.

Maria DaCosta, 72, and her husband, Antonio, 82, were still in pajamas when a large maple tree from their neighbor’s yard crashed through a fence and pierced the new roof of their white ranch near Buttonwood Park.

“My heart was like this!’’ a wide-eyed Maria DaCosta said, rapidly patting her chest.

“It sounded like a big thunder,’’ her husband said. “I thought that the house fell down.’’

Elsewhere, there was a mudslide in North Adams and an unoccupied building partially collapsed in Chelsea. In Becket, about 90 percent of local roads were impassable, and on Martha’s Vineyard, the island’s police and fire departments dealt with minor flooding on roadways and downed poles and wires.

In Westport, seawater slid up to the buildings at Westport Point, and water was sloshing at the steps of the Paquachuck Inn. People walked in knee-deep water down the street.

While most residents spent the day hunkered down, some could not resist the urge to experience the storm outside.

Among them was a Quincy man arrested by State Police after they chased him out of the turbulent waters of Nanatasket Beach in Hull, where he decided to take a swim.

Helen Stratford went to a beach in Chilmark to get a glimpse of Irene’s might.

“Most of us [who are still in town] like nature in its extremes - for all its glory and terror,’’ she said. “It induces a sense of rapture.’’

Erin Ailworth, Travis Andersen, Mark Arsenault, John Ellement, Martin Finucane, Bryan Marquard, Jenna Russell, and Maria Sacchetti of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Evan Allen, Neena Satija, L. Finch, and Miriam Valverde contributed to this report.