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Coast hit hard by storm’s wrath

2 Scituate houses lost to fire on flooded street; Communities assess damage from high tides

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By Thomas Farragher
Globe Staff / December 28, 2010

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SCITUATE — A punishing Atlantic Ocean boiled over breakwaters and battered the Massachusetts coastline from Marshfield to Gloucester early yesterday, breaching sea walls and wreaking substantial damage likely to take days to fully tally.

But the roar of the mighty high tide was not what made Rick Bartley sit straight up in bed just after 3 a.m. It’s what he heard next.

“It sounded like gunshots,’’ Bartley said as he watched firefighters try to save his Scituate home from the flames that consumed two neighboring houses in this oceanfront community. “It woke me up. Pop. Pop. Pop. And then you could see the flames.’’

Flooding in Bartley’s seaside neighborhood forced the evacuation of dozens of his neighbors, including Paul and Maureen Trayers, whose Seventh Avenue home was heavily damaged by flames. The water was chest-high, so deep that most had to be rescued by a pontoon boat and firetrucks were unable to come close.

“It was sparking and smoking,’’ Maureen Trayers said, as firefighters in red survival suits waded down her street to battle the early-morning blaze that began next door. “We just had Christmas. And it’s all still in there.’’

The house where the fire began was destroyed, officials said. Efforts to reach the owners were not successful.

Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency officials say it’s too soon to know the full damage to the coastline from the nor’easter, but initial indications are that serious damage was isolated. Communities from Gloucester to Quincy reported some flooding and many more reported a good scare as waves lapped over sea walls and onto the streets when the tide was high early.

On Bearskin Neck in Rockport yesterday, walls of water slammed into the narrow, rocky peninsula, sending up massive plumes of spray. Watching from the windows of his gallery, painter Corey Tevan said he loves the angry ocean, but grew fearful of its fury late Sunday.

“It was the most savage night I’ve ever seen here,’’ said the artist. “It was like a freight train, and it went on all night.’’

The storm surge shattered windows and snatched shingles off waterfront cottages, ripped out railings at Front Beach, and forced apart a granite sea wall at White Wharf.

The tide also tore a handful of propane tanks off buildings, flinging them into the harbor, while about 20 residents were evacuated to the Rockport High School cafeteria at the height of the storm, Police Chief Tom McCarthy said.

But a spokesman for the state emergency management agency, Peter Judge, said Scituate, a South Shore town that has lost numerous homes to the sea over the years, may have suffered the worst of it. “Scituate seems to be in the bull’s-eye,’’ he said.

John Danehey, chairman of the Scituate Board of Selectmen, said the town declared a state of emergency at 3:45 a.m. yesterday and emergency response personnel struggled to keep pace with distress calls. Uprooted trees lay across frozen front lawns. Tall pines snapped electrical wires, leaving hundreds without power.

And National Guard troops in military transport vehicles ferried scores of residents to safety as the water that moved into their neighborhoods on ferocious predawn winds did not recede.

“It’s the highest tide we’ve seen in at least 18 years,’’ said Danehey, whose home was just a few hundred yards from flood waters that turned ballfields into lakes and streams into rivers.

He said at least 80 people were evacuated, most of them heeding advice to leave in advance of the monster storm.

Those who did not — or could not — had to depend on local emergency response personnel who were aided by a contingent from the Massachusetts National Guard’s 189th Engineering Company based in Bridgewater.

Patricia Vinchesi, Scituate’s town administrator, and Danehey said it may take days before the full extent of the winter storm’s fury can be fully assessed.

“We’ve had no serious injuries to confront but we do have structural damage to many, many homes that we won’t even be able to get to until tomorrow,’’ Vinchesi said.

At the Seventh Avenue fire scene, Lieutenant David Bortolotto and firefighter David Hermance waded repeatedly into icy, chest-deep waters in a successful effort to save Bartley’s home.

“We want to protect the house next to the one that’s burning now,’’ Bortolotto said yesterday morning. “Because of the depth of the water, we were unable to shut off the gas main.’’

Bartley, who stood shivering in a biting wind to watch the firefighters’ efforts, said he was grateful for their work but heartbroken about his neighbors’ loss.

“I’m happy for me, but I want to cry because the Trayers just lost their house,’’ Bartley said. It’s just terrible.’’

Across town at Scituate High School, a handful of families found a pet-friendly shelter in the school’s cafeteria. “The people who are coming in now are the people waking up,’’ said Elena Cheverie, a local firefighter and EMT and one of the people in charge of the shelter.

Two Scituate Harbor residents at the shelter said the water rapping on the side of their house woke them up.

“The water was up to here inside,’’ said Carmen Tirado with her hand up to her neck. “Everything floating.’’

Late yesterday, as the day’s second high tide crashed ashore, Danehey said stress fractures were spotted in the imperiled sea wall — widening the breach perhaps up to 50 feet.

“We’re monitoring it and after this tide it could be even wider,’’ Danehey said. “If it continues to break further, it could be just like a domino effect, worsening flooding in that area.’’

Power that had been off in some neighborhoods for more than 10 hours was restored as darkness fell. But Danehey said National Grid’s performance had been subpar.

“We’re just extremely disappointed given the impact of the power outage in Scituate,’’ he said. “They knew this was going to be a large storm. I think they failed to assign adequate personnel to address a storm of this magnitude.’’

“We’re just waiting to see what the impact of this latest surge will be. But, thankfully, this storm is moving on.’’

Globe correspondent Jessica Bartlett and Jenna Russell of the Globe staff contributed to this report.