THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Bracing for a great white wave

As a huge winter storm blasted up the coast, the question here was how hard would it hit, and where

By Patricia Wen and Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / December 20, 2009

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A treacherous northeaster that dumped record-level snowfalls throughout much of the East Coast swept into Massachusetts overnight, grounding hundreds of flights at Logan International Airport, launching fleets of snowplows, and canceling numerous holiday parties with Christmas less than a week away.

Forecasters predicted the season’s first major snowstorm would taper off by noon today, leaving 8 to 12 inches of accumulation in Boston, and slightly more in surrounding areas. Southeastern Massachusetts and southern Rhode Island were expected to be hardest hit, with up to 20 inches of snowfall, along with severe winds and whiteout conditions. A blizzard emergency, defined as winds of more than 35 miles and hour and less than a quarter-mile visibility, had been declared throughout that region yesterday.

The storm paralyzed the nation’s capital with 16 inches of snow yesterday, and along the East Coast, the weather was blamed in about a half-dozen deaths, while hundreds sought warmth in emergency shelters.

Storm fears were on the minds of many area residents yesterday tracking the weather. On Cape Cod, one hotel had some bookings from residents who feared widespread power failures, and Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School was turned into one of four standby shelters on the Cape. By the time the first flakes began falling in Hyannis around 10:15, salt trucks had already made their first pass on Route 6, and a hush had settled on the empty streets.

In Boston, homeless shelters were on alert for men and women needing urgent refuge. And at Logan Airport, as well as other airports in the region, frustrated travelers looked up at electronic boards lighting up with news of delays or cancellations. By yesterday afternoon, roughly one-third of all flights were canceled, said Phil Orlandella, spokesman for Logan Airport.

After a long conversation with a ticket agent, John Davitt, 22, came away from the AirTran Airways counter dejected. Davitt, a Boston University student who was heading home to the Washington, D.C., area, said he was told yesterday morning his flight would be on time. His flight was later rescheduled for 6:30 a.m. Monday.

“At this point, it’s jump on a train, another airline,’’ he said, his cat in tow. “Anything to get out of here.’’

Orlandella urged travelers to check with their airlines to see if their flights are still affected by the storm. Flights destined for other parts of the United States could still go off without a hitch, he said.

The storm caused 60- to 90-minute delays on Amtrak trains traveling from Washington, D.C., to Boston, according to a spokeswoman.

“Travel has slowed on various parts of the route,’’ said Vernae Graham. She said it was unclear whether travel would be slowed again today.

“We’ll have to wait to see what the weather brings,’’ she said.

Greyhound canceled bus service to Boston from 8 last night until noon today, a spokeswoman said. “Weather permitting we’ll resume service at noon,’’ said Maureen Richmond.

While some holiday revelers kept their Saturday night party plans, others abruptly canceled them as they nervously watched weather reports. The cancellations made for even more dismal holiday revenues at many hotels and restaurants, already coping with slumping sales as a result of the economic downturn.

Felis Barreiro, owner of Alberto’s Ristorante in Hyannis, said that a family party for 70 people set for last night was called off.

“Some of them were snowplowers and they’ll have to work,’’ said Barreiro. “They also had about 20 kids in the party, and they decided not to venture out. They wanted to be safe.’’

The last-minute cancellation left Barreiro with enough beef short ribs, chicken, salmon, and tiramisu to feed 70 people. ’’I guess our employees will have a little party tonight,’’ he said.

The weekend storm was seen as the first major test for state transportation officials since the consolidation of the state highway department, Turnpike Authority, and MBTA.

“The first major topic on our agenda was ‘How are we going to handle snow and ice?’ There has been lots of preparation,’’ said Luisa M. Paiewonsky, commissioner of the Massachusetts Highway Department, who works within the new Department of Transportation.

Governor Deval Patrick, who was waiting out the storm at his home in Western Massachusetts, said in a conference call that there were about 4,500 pieces of equipment ready to plow the roads and highways and 600 workers on call. “We are ready,’’ he declared.

Removal of snow was not, however, on the minds of those running the Blue Hills Ski Area in Canton, which opened Friday.

“We couldn’t have asked for anything better,’’ said Kristin Orozovich, the general manager. “It’s perfect timing.’’

Whatever amount of accumulation comes this way, she said, Blue Hills still will power up its snow-making machinery this week.

“We like to have a 46-inch snow base,’’ Orozovich said. “We need snow to last until March.’’

Weather forecasters say it remains unclear if this season will produce the dream ski conditions of last winter. According to Kim Buttrick, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, a total of 65.9 inches of snow fell in Boston last winter, while the average amount of winter snowfall for the area is 43.8 inches.

Those who think that snow and Christmas go together also had a reason to celebrate. Though warmer midweek temperatures may thaw some of the snow from this storm, meteorologists say temperatures will probably drop again by the end of the week and a wintry mix of snow, rain, and sleet is anticipated around Dec. 25.

“There may be a white Christmas or maybe a slushy, not-completely-white Christmas,’’ Buttrick said.

For some hardy shoppers the storm posed a mere inconvenience. Four former Colby College classmates roamed the aisles of the Shaw’s Supermarket in Cambridge’s Porter Square last night, picking up items for their “Ugly Christmas Sweater Party.’’

Ruth Langton, 22, described her group as winter savvy, while Hanna Schenk, 23, of Cambridge, said plans for the ravioli dinner would not be stopped by any snow.

Bay State retailers were expected to escape without major losses on the final Saturday before Christmas, the busiest shopping day of the year, said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.

“The timing is good because it will happen overnight,’’ Hurst said. “As long as the streets are cleared, and people can get out, Sunday should be fine.’’

With Christmas falling on a Friday this year, shoppers also have more time to make last-minute purchases, he said.

“A lot of people are going to be off one or more days before Monday and Thursday. The stores all have extended hours,’’ Hurst said. “A little snow on the ground never hurts the consumer psyche.’’

At Burlington Mall, stores were packed with customers trying to get last-minute gifts. Many said they were keeping a close eye on weather reports.

“As soon as I see flakes, I’m out of here,’’ said Elaine Donahue of Bedford as she stood outside the mall food court with a Lord & Taylor bag in hand.

Cape Cod Mall’s general manager, Leo Fein, said he hopes today’s weather clears before the Hyannis shopping center reopens at 8 a.m.

“I’m hoping this will be the perfect storm,’’ he said. “It will start at 11 p.m. and end at 6 a.m.’’

Globe correspondents Jeannie Nuss, Hannah McBride, Emma Stickgold, and Emma Rose Johnson also contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was used.

Correction:Because of a reporting error, a story about the snowstorm hitting the East Coast incorrectly identified Luisa Paiewonsky. She is the administrator of the MassDOT Highway Division and works within the new Massachusetts Department of Transportation.