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Torrential rains leave Essex County reeling

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By Brian MacQuarrie, Brian R. Ballou, and Steven A. Rosenberg
Globe Staff / October 5, 2011

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SWAMPSCOTT - Drenched communities in Essex County began drying out and taking stock yesterday, following a flurry of morning thunderstorms that pummeled the region north of Boston with nearly 6 inches of rain, damaged hundreds of homes, made the commute miserable, and turned roadways into fast-rising flood zones.

Dozens of motorists abandoned cars, schools were closed or delayed in opening, and police and firefighters across the North Shore scrambled to shut off electricity in homes with dangerously flooded basements.

“This is the worst flooding I’ve ever seen in this town,’’ said Swampscott police Sergeant Tim Cassidy.

Swampscott received 5.73 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service. In Peabody, the total was 4.55 inches, followed by Beverly at 4.30 inches, and Salem at 4.23 inches. There appeared to be no injuries or reports of emergency rescues.

“I don’t think we were anticipating this amount of rain in this amount of time,’’ said Kim Buttrick, a National Weather Service meteorologist. The thunderstorms, most landing between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m., spiraled out of a low-pressure area that had marched north from the New Jersey coast.

The Weather Service had forecast rain, Buttrick said, but not the succession of torrential thunderstorms that raked the region.

In Swampscott, Mike Ciola figured the heavy morning rain was just another storm. In a matter of seconds, his commute changed from routine to hair-raising. After noticing that Paradise Road was beginning to flood, the car in front of him stalled, and Ciola pulled into a parking lot where his vehicle was engulfed in 5 feet of water.

“The water was up to my doorknobs and coming in through the engine compartment,’’ said Ciola, who pushed open the door of his sport utility vehicle and waded to higher ground before catching his breath.

With just one road open on the way out of town and the rest of the main thoroughfares closed, commuters sat in Swampscott traffic for two hours while hundreds of residents called town officials to report that their basements had flooded. Dozens of homes lost power.

Andrew Maylor, Swampscott town administrator, said he expected millions of dollars in damage to his seaside community, where the storm coincided with a high tide that backed up the drainage system.

“It’s the kind of impact you wouldn’t expect from a nonwind event,’’ Maylor said. “This seems a little bit Gulf Coast-like.’’

A Swampscott elementary school closed for the day, and other schools opened two hours late.

Few sections of town were left unscathed. With stretches of main streets under water and detours throughout town, Swampscott’s normally quiet streets buzzed with electric water pumps and emergency generators.

Peabody, which has struggled with flooding in the past, was also hit hard. Peabody Square was under water in the morning, with several cars abandoned as stranded motorists sought shelter in City Hall.

“It’s a total disaster over here,’’ said Annette Goins, a cashier at Bill and Bob’s Famous Roast Beef in the square. “It took an hour and 20 minutes to get to work, and I only live 10 minutes away.’’

Mayor Michael Bonfanti declared a local state of emergency, schools were closed, and Peabody District Court was shut down.

The rain created havoc with the morning commute on highways north of Boston. Route 128 southbound in Peabody between Route 114 and Lowell Street was closed by State Police for a few hours, as were Route 1 northbound at Interstate 95, the Lynnway leading to the Nahant rotary, and the Nahant Causeway.

Several cars were stranded on Route 1 in the Lynnfield tunnel, which had been flooded by several feet of water. A small boat from the State Police marine unit was used to help extricate the empty vehicles.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency dispatched an official to tour the area yesterday and will follow up today to gauge the extent of damage, said Peter Judge, the agency spokesman.

In Peabody, the flooding caught many residents off guard, even after being awakened by the pounding, predawn storm.

“I woke up and saw that it was raining out, but I didn’t think it was going to be that bad,’’ said David Elgart, 27, who lives in an apartment near the square.

Elgart, who has spent thousands of dollars to modify his black sports coupe, said the parking lot was submerged in knee-high water. “When I walked outside, I couldn’t believe it,’’ he said.

Nabil Elkafas, who owns Down Town Pizza on Lowell Street, was shocked by the flooding.

“I didn’t even know it would be like this,’’ Elkafas said. “When I left at 10 o’clock last night, everything was fine. I wasn’t prepared.’’

Tow companies did brisk business, crisscrossing the hardest-hit areas to pull out stalled vehicles. Two rows of cars at a dealership on Walnut Street sat in water up to their doors, and several taxis at a nearby cab company were partially submerged.

Bonfanti said the flooding appeared to be the worst since 2006, when a Mother’s Day storm caused millions of dollars in damage. He credited recent flood-control work with limiting damage, but said more must be done.

“We need some financial help from the federal government and the state if we’re going to mitigate this,’’ Bonfanti said. “We’re an older community, and the brooks and streams get silted up.’’

Peabody embarked in December on a three-year project to reduce the amount of storm water that accumulates in the low-lying square and some neighborhoods. The project calls for construction of culverts to divert the overflow.

The city’s work is made more difficult by environmental challenges, the mayor said, because of contamination generated by former tanneries.

“There’s a lot of stuff in that ground,’’ Bonfanti said. “It’s costly and time-consuming. Unfortunately, in a bad economic time, some of the necessary funding has not been available.’’

In the Old Town section of Marblehead, where schools opened two hours late, drain basins clogged and caused widespread flooding near the harbor. Water in some parking lots rose to 4 feet high.

In Salem, Deborah Delaney and her husband were awakened by a neighbor at 6:15 a.m. so they could move their cars into a garage and avoid water damage. “We had our entire driveway flooded, and the water went up to the wheel wells of the car,’’ Delaney said. “It’s a mess.’’

Elsewhere in Essex County, the Topsfield Fair delayed its 10 a.m. opening to noon because one of its main parking lots, on Route 1, was flooded by several feet of water. Typically, weekday mornings are busy with school groups.

US Representative John Tierney, a Democrat from Salem, said he had contacted Governor Deval Patrick and affected local officials and will work “to ensure our communities and small businesses receive the assistance they need.’’

Kathy McCabe of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Amanda Cedrone and Jaime Lutz contributed to this report. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.