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Hurricane Sandy slams East Coast

Waves crashed over homes on Turner Road in Scituate on Monday. Even though the landfall was in New Jersey, Massachusetts took a pounding from one of the biggest storms in history.
Waves crashed over homes on Turner Road in Scituate on Monday. Even though the landfall was in New Jersey, Massachusetts took a pounding from one of the biggest storms in history. (David L Ryan/Globe Staff)Credit: David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Hurricane Sandy, one of the largest storms to ever hit the East Coast, pummeled Massachusetts on Monday with punishing winds and dangerously high seas, flooding some coastal areas, and cutting power to some 385,000 homes.

The enormous storm, gaining speed as it roared north across the Atlantic, brought steady rain and sustained winds of 35 miles per hour through much of the day, with gusts nearly twice that strong.

Although Sandy’s landfall was in southern New Jersey, it cut a destructive path nearly a thousand miles wide, causing massive disruptions throughout the Northeast.

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In Massachusetts, heavy winds toppled trees and power lines, closing roads and causing increasing power outages throughout the day. Heavy surf pounded the coast, forcing evacuations in some low-lying areas in advance of the evening high tide, when storm surges were expected to exceed six feet.

“All of our shoreline could be affected,” said Brian Legendre, fire chief in Westport, a coastal town next to Fall River.

Utilities warned that because of the storm’s strength and duration, power outages could last a few days. The high winds would make it too dangerous for some repairs to occur, Governor Deval Patrick said in an evening press conference. Utilities would be working through the night to restore power where they can, he said.

No injuries or serious damage was reported Monday amid the high winds. But the powerful late-season storm, which killed nearly 70 people in the Caribbean, brought the area to a near-standstill. As most people hunkered at home, schools, malls, and businesses were closed, major roads were half-empty, and public transit shut down.

Amtrak canceled its service along the Northeast Corridor, and several bus lines canceled service through Tuesday. At Logan International Airport, more than 900 flights were canceled.

The MBTA stopped running shortly after 2 p.m. amid mounting reports of downed wires and branches and concerns that flooding would make parts of the system impassible.

“Shutting down public transit is never ideal. But under the circumstances, the safety of our customers and our employees is paramount,” said Richard Davey, the state’s transportation secretary.

The closing was announced at 10 a.m., prompting a rush for the final trains. By noon, South Station was at rush-hour bustle as riders headed home.

Davey said that he hoped service would resume Tuesday morning but that crews needed time to survey the damage. By mid-afternoon, at least 15 trees or large branches had fallen on rail lines.

“We hope to run full service for tomorrow morning,’’ he said. “That would be our goal. But it is not guaranteed.’’

Patrick said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the T and commuter rail service would run Tuesday morning.

“In general, we think people can prepare for a normal work day tomorrow,” he said. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said schools and city offices would be open Tuesday.

Winds were expected to wane overnight, but a coastal flood warning was in effect until 1 p.m. Tuesday.

As Monday’s high tide approached under a full moon, Legendre warned that the “worst is yet to come.”

Forecasters warned that the state’s southern coast from Westport to Fairhaven might experience severe flooding, potentially more damaging than Hurricane Bob in 1991. Some 1,300 National Guard soldiers were deployed, mostly to the eastern and southern coasts.

As Sandy moved toward the coast, the Category 1 hurricane packed winds up to 90 miles per hour, and forecasters said it could stand as the largest hurricane in New England history. Its air pressure — an indicator of the storm’s power — was the lowest ever recorded in the area.

“The lower the pressure, the more powerful the hurricane,” said Charlie Foley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Taunton.

Wind gusts of more than 60 miles per hour were reported in Brookline, Milton, Lawrence, Barnstable, Falmouth, and Fairhaven on Monday afternoon. Winds around 81 miles per hour were reported in Wellfleet just after 2 p.m., and a buoy off Cuttyhunk recorded a gust of 83 miles per hour.

In Waltham, about 25 families were forced to leave their homes when part of the roof was blown from two condominium buildings. One of the roofs was waving back and forth in the wind Monday night, and, at times, hanging about 10 feet over the edge of the building. Scraps of metal and wood littered the ground.

Despite the high winds, officials said the storm had not caused overwhelming damage.

“All in all, we’re holding our own,” Patrick said at an afternoon news conference.

“But it’s nature,” he added, “and it can change in a minute.”

In Westport, the wind whipped along Main Road when there was a loud pop and white flash. For several seconds, the power lines glowed bright orange.

Smoke poured off the branch that had ripped down the wires, then it burst into flames by the side of the road. The fire grew with the wind, but was then knocked back by the rain.

Drivers hesitated a moment, then sped past. About 15 minutes later, the fire department arrived to clear onlookers.

Throughout the day, people trekked to the beach in rain slickers to see Sandy close up. They leaned unsteadily into the gusts and trained video cameras on the pounding white waves.

“Look at those waves,” Chris Correia, a “weather enthusiast” from Dartmouth, yelled over the wind. “It’s nature at its best and its worst.”

In New Bedford, dozens of people took refuge at emergency shelters. Andrew DiIanni, 38, and Steve Correia, 28, said they have been living under a bridge near the downtown area. They initially tried to ride out the storm with a barrier of tarps. But by noon, the wind became too strong, and they called police for help.

“They were whipped in half, the wind was so strong,” DiIanni said of the tarps.

Just over a hundred people sought shelter in the state.

On the North Shore, Plum Island resident Bob Connorscalled Sandy “a doozie of a storm.” He said he decided not to leave because his home is newer and built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane. Many others, especially the elderly or those with medical conditions, had left, he said. Only residents and emergency responders can come onto the barrier island, he said.

On the South Shore in Scituate, Mark Harrington said he always stays at his brother’s house during big storms.

“If we were any farther out in the water, we’d be a boat,” he said as waves crashed against kitchen windows 13 feet off the ground. No worry, he said. The house, raised on 18-inch concrete supports, is sturdy.

“It’s built like a bridge,” he said. A general contractor, Harrington did all the renovations 17 years ago. Ever since, the Harrington brothers have spent every storm in the wooden house by the sea.

“It’s been through all the big storms,” he said, before running out to secure water cooler bottles and a propane tank rolling across the deck.

As water splashed over the sea wall, storm watchers snapped photos and collected discarded buoys.

Lisa Huffman snapped photos of her 5-year-old daughter, Hope, as waves crested in the background and memories drifted back to the tropical storm that lumbered up the East Coast in August 2011.

During Irene, they were able to stand right up against the sea wall and watch the storm. Now, they were separated by about 10 feet of sand. “This seems worse than Irene, doesn’t it?” she asked her daughter, who nodded in agreement.

In Salem, tourism officials are closely monitoring Sandy’s path, but expect Halloween festivities planned for Wednesday to proceed as planned.

“I’m just holding my breath and waiting for the storm to pass,” said Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem, the city’s tourism office.

Sandy didn’t scare Jen and Jon Coil, a married couple staying at the hotel, who traveled from Philadelphia to Salem on Sunday.

“What difference does it make if the hurricane hits us in Philadelphia or Salem?” asked Jen, 30, a paralegal, making her first visit to Salem. “I do wish more things were open today. We were looking forward to visiting some museums.”

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