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Eastern Mass. braces for blizzard

Monday commutes expected to be long

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By Scott Allen and Emma R. Stickgold
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / December 26, 2010

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The National Weather Service has issued a blizzard warning for most of Eastern Massachusetts beginning at noon today, when a severe winter storm is expected to begin dumping 15 to 20 inches of snow on the region, likely bringing highway gridlock, power outages, and coastal flooding in its wake.

National Weather Service meteorologist Alan Dunham said sustained winds of 35 miles per hour are likely to make visibility so limited that people should stay home if at all possible. The warning applies to all of Massachusetts east of Worcester, except for Cape Cod.

“It’s going to be heavy snow,’’ said Dunham, stationed at the weather service’s Taunton office. “Sometimes you refer to this kind of snow as ‘heart attack’ snow,’’ because it is so heavy for people to shovel. He said the storm may cause power outages and he urged people to keep batteries, portable radios, and other necessities on hand.

He predicted the morning commute tomorrow will be a nightmare.

Even before it arrives, the first major storm of the winter was disrupting travel out of Logan International Airport as airlines canceled flights from other storm-affected cities. Delta Airlines canceled 500 flights nationwide yesterday, including numerous flights to Boston from its hub in Atlanta, leaving some travelers scrambling to make other plans.

“It’s just frustrating. I was supposed to work tomorrow and now I can’t,’’ said Chantel Johnson, 22, who had planned to be on one of Delta’s canceled flights to Tallahassee, Fla., where she works as a youth counselor. Instead, she was waiting in Terminal A for a ride back to Worcester, where she was visiting relatives.

Phil Orlandella, a Logan spokesman, said yesterday afternoon that the airport remains “wide open,’’ but airport officials are watching the weather closely. He said the airport has 50 pieces of snow removal equipment on standby, but if the snow becomes too heavy, he said the planes and runways are difficult to keep clear and pilots have difficulty seeing.

“We will try to keep the airport open as long as it’s safe,’’ said Orlandella. He said concerned travelers should contact their airline or visit www.massport.com for the latest information on flight delays and cancellations.

The storm blanketed the Midwest yesterday and delivered snow as far south as Alabama, according to the National Weather Service, before turning north toward New England. By yesterday afternoon, the weather service had issued winter storm watches and warnings for most of the East Coast from Maine to Georgia.

Meteorologists had been predicting a serious storm here, but late yesterday afternoon Dunham said the computer models showed the storm would be a full-scale blizzard.

Blizzards are storms that have visibility of less than a quarter-mile and winds that frequently reach 35 miles per hour for at least three hours.

The warning for Massachusetts will be in effect until tomorrow afternoon, Dunham said.

There is still an outside chance that the blizzard may not materialize, Dunham said, but “I’m as confident as you can be at any time in the weather business.’’

The storm could reach Cape Cod and southeastern Massachusetts by midmorning and the rest of New England soon after, with the heaviest snowfall coming after dark, accompanied by howling winds.

Cape Cod and the islands are not covered by the blizzard warning because much of the precipitation there is likely to fall as rain. But the weather service issued a separate wind warning for the region with gusts of up to 60 miles per hour by tomorrow. Dunham said winds in southeastern Massachusetts would be nearly as strong.

In addition, the National Weather Service has issued a coastal flooding warning for much of the New England coast, especially around the high tide at 3:25 a.m. tomorrow.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation expects trucks to begin chemically treating the state’s roads around 10 a.m. today in hopes of reducing the amount of ice that forms during the storm.

Department spokesman Adam Hurtubise said the agency has notified the drivers of some 4,000 snowplows, sanders, and salt trucks that their services will be needed to keep the road safe for drivers.

“Our folks will be out ahead of the storm and they will be out after the storm,’’ said Hurtubise. “We are going to be adequately staffed.’’

Hurtubise said the storm’s timing could help snow-clearing operations, noting that traffic is generally lighter on Sundays. In addition, he said the morning commute tomorrow would probably be lighter than normal because of the school vacation schedule.

But Dunham said the continued high winds tomorrow will make clearing the roads tough even after the snow stops.

“Anybody that wants to try to go to work Monday morning, plan on a two-, three-, four-hour commute,’’ he said.

At Logan yesterday afternoon, savvy travelers were changing plans in hopes of getting out ahead of the storm.

Kim Marie Hastings, her fiance, Michael Gendreau, and her 18-year-old son, Ryan Chevalier, cut the Christmas celebration short at their Sturbridge home so they could fly to Atlanta a day earlier.

But it was too late for Susannah Hamblin and Jon Tilliss of Somerville, whose flight to Europe was delayed by the continued wintry weather there.

The couple had planned to meet other family members for a reunion in Turkey, but their flight to Frankfurt, Germany, was delayed three hours due to snow, jeopardizing their connecting flight to Istanbul.

Hamblin said the waiting is stressful, but the couple tries to keep things in perspective.

“It ruins his life, but he gets over it,’’ she said.

Scott Allen can be reached at allen@globe.com. Emma R. Stickgold can be reached at estickgold@globe.com.