Weakened but dangerous, Irene thunders into N.E.

Gravest threat is coastal surge; at least eight die in storm’s fury; wary calm precedes landfall here

The National Weather Service expected the storm to hit Massachusetts hardest along the south coast and on the Cape and Islands. Byron Crampton (right), who stocked up on supplies with the help of his friend, Don Guzman, said his family would sit out Irene at their house on Crescent Beach in Mattapoisett. The National Weather Service expected the storm to hit Massachusetts hardest along the south coast and on the Cape and Islands. Byron Crampton (right), who stocked up on supplies with the help of his friend, Don Guzman, said his family would sit out Irene at their house on Crescent Beach in Mattapoisett. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)
By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / August 28, 2011

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Massachusetts steeled itself for an onslaught of pummeling rains and bracing winds today as Hurricane Irene marches up the Eastern Seaboard, leaving in its wake downed trees, severed power lines, and walls of seawater.

Transit authorities in Boston, following the lead of their counterparts in New York, announced last night they were canceling all subway and bus service starting at 8 this morning, with a promise that trains and buses would be running again for tomorrow morning’s commute.

Irene had already paralyzed parts of the Northeast, with an eerie calm settling over sections of New York and darkening skies and rain hanging over southern New England. Massachusetts residents waited to see whether a seemingly weakening storm would still pack a punch, while elected officials urged them to be prepared, regardless.

Mayor Scott W. Lang of New Bedford told residents in low-lying areas to evacuate by morning and warned that roads would be closed as the city braces for a potential 11-foot storm surge. The National Weather Service in Taunton said last night that the Cape and Islands and the south coast of Massachusetts could get gusts of up to 75 miles per hour, though winds should be milder inland. Both bridges to Cape Cod and the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth would be shut down if sustained winds reach up to 70 miles per hour, according to Governor Deval Patrick.

Western Massachusetts, still digging out from the wreckage caused by tornadoes in early June, could get 6 to 10 inches of rain and wind gusts up to 65 miles per hour.

“This is a very, very serious event if the reality turns out to be what the forecast has been,’’ Patrick said. “But we are preparing for the worst. Just as conditions can improve, they can also worsen.’’

Hurricane Irene began whipping North Carolina with winds as strong as 115 miles per hour that weakened to 85 miles per hour, making it a less-threatening, Category 1 hurricane.

By last night, the National Weather Service in Taunton was predicting just 1 to 3 inches of rain in Boston. But upper Buzzards Bay could get storm surges of 4 to 7 feet and wind gusts up to 85 miles per hour.

“The storm is still quite large,’’ said Kim Buttrick, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service. “It just won’t be of the magnitude of previous big-name hurricanes.’’

President Obama, who cut short his Martha’s Vineyard vacation because of the hurricane, declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts late Friday night, authorizing federal relief efforts for Massachusetts well before the storm would arrive.

Patrick asked motorists to stay off the road today, to check on their neighbors, and to stockpile supplies, such as food, medication, and batteries.

State Police have deployed four amphibious support vehicles and the state prepared rapid reconnaissance teams to begin assessing damage at dawn tomorrow. The National Guard is prepared to help and was stockpiling sandbags for expected flooding in Western Massachusetts.

In Monson, which found itself in the cross-hairs of a menacing tornado in early June, residents ran errands to prepare for Irene, some shrugging with resignation when asked about the approaching storm.

“A little wind. A little rain. As long as it’s not a tornado,’’ said Steve Salerno, 47, in the restaurant he owns on Main Street.

Salerno said the restaurant, and its ice cream, attracts about 40 customers on a normal summer Saturday. Yesterday was his worst day of the season. He’s closing today.

Despite the impending downpours and intense winds, Monson was serene. Light drizzle sprinkled the sidewalks and a sheet of fog settled over the lush, green hills.

A sign on Main Street, across from a town building closed after its windows and roof were damaged in the tornado, informed residents that shelter would be available at Quarry Hill School.

Fliers advertising events to benefit tornado victims still hang in storefront windows.

“Lots of people are shook up, but the town is taking this in stride,’’ said Robert Cope, 72, in a Main Street pizzeria. “There’s nothing else you can do.’’

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation waived tolls today, through 10 p.m., and the Boston Symphony Orchestra canceled a concert at Tanglewood for the first time in 75 years.

Only two airlines still hoped to get international flights off the ground from Logan International Airport today, said Phil Orlandella, spokesman for the Massachusetts Port Authority. All other flights had been canceled on a day that would normally see 500 planes land and 500 others take off from Logan.

The US Postal Service - famously undeterred by rain, hail, heat, or snow - acknowledged that Irene might stop Express Mail packages from being delivered in metropolitan Boston today. And even the Catholic church reconciled itself to the idea that traditional routines might be upended today. The Archdiocese of Boston issued a statement last night reminding Catholics that the “obligation to attend Sunday Mass must be understood in light of health or safety concerns.’’

Still, some soldiered on with their end-of-summer plans in defiance of dire predictions. On the 10:45 a.m. ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, many passengers seemed unconcerned about Irene - particularly if they had been on the island to witness Hurricane Earl’s much heralded and ultimately anticlimactic approach last year. When it hit New England, Hurricane Earl had weakened to a tropical storm that merely sprayed the region with heavy rain and winds.

“There’s so much hype about this type of stuff,’’ said Ryan McBride, a 42-year-old Philadelphia man visiting the Vineyard with his family. He expects the power to go out but figures candles, flashlights, and a sense of adventure will be enough to keep the children entertained.

When rain began to fall on the ferry, Terri and Rick Byers of North Andover ushered their daughters in from an observation deck and thought of last year, when Earl put a damper on their Vineyard vacation.

Their daughters, Jenna, 9, and Olivia, 8, were set to make the best of it, talking of the canned tuna fish and peanut butter they’d use as rations.

“It will be an adventure, right, Livie?’’ Jenna asked her sister.

All along the Northeast coast, politicians pleaded for fewer adventurers. Almost exactly six years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, officials urged people not to take chances. Emergency management officials in Cape May County, N.J., issued a mandatory order to evacuate and ominous warnings to those who would resist: Place a card with your name, Social Security number, and next of kin in your shoe, so we can identify you.

New York City ordered 300,000 people to leave low-lying areas, including the Battery Park City neighborhood at the southern tip of Manhattan, the beachfront Rockaways in Queens, and Coney Island in Brooklyn.

The transit system, which had never shut for weather, ground to a halt at noon, silencing hundreds of miles of subways and bus routes.

“It’s crazy,’’ said Freddie Rosario, who was racing down the steps at the subway stop at 32d Street and Sixth Avenue to catch the last train to Brooklyn. “I just got off work, and if my boss had kept me late I’d be stranded here. “

When the buses stopped running, the taxis were few, and the masses that typically jam Manhattan were gone. A strange calm hung over the city.

Thierry Fandio had never seen the city so empty. The hordes who would typically scramble for cabs in the rain were nowhere to be found.

“I don’t want to compare it to after Sept. 11 when the city was empty,’’ Fandio said. “But it kind of feels like it.’’

Many shops closed early and Web connections were down in some restaurants. At a BBQ joint in Chelsea, employees made sleepover arrangements.

In Battery Park City, a neighborhood at the tip of the Hudson River and Wall Street, some residents ignored mandatory evacuation.

“I’m not leaving because I don’t want to leave,’’ said Greg Egleston, as he took an easy stroll through the neighborhood. “Plus what am I going to do? I can go uptown to my mom’s but she’s in the same predicament.’’

Helena Andrekyo, a denizen of Manhattan for 35 years, said she had lived through remnants of other storms before, though not one directly aiming for her city.

She has enough food to last three days, a bathtub full of water, and plans to sleep in the hallway away from the windows.

“They have downgraded it a little,’’ said Andrekyo, an administrator for a science foundation. “If it was a Category 3, I’d be out of here.’’

Meteorologists were already responding to complaints about the alarms set off by the storm.

“In a sense, there was a lot of hype but for good reason,’’ said Buttrick, of the National Weather Service in Taunton.

“It still might be that dangerous, in terms of the impact to the Carolinas, New Jersey, New York City. Our area has yet to be written.’’

Erin Ailworth and Meghan E. Irons of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Christopher J. Girard, L. Finch, and Ben Wolford contributed to this report. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.