Driving snow and punishing winds battered Eastern Massachusetts beginning Friday afternoon, prompting a mass retreat that jammed public transit, emptied the highways, and had New Englanders hunkered down to await the teeth of a potentially historic storm.
In a rare move that underscored the nor’easter’s danger, Governor Deval Patrick ordered nearly all traffic banned from Massachusetts roads beginning at 4 p.m., the first such travel ban since the devastating Blizzard of ’78. Only public works and public safety employees, utility workers, and the news media were allowed to travel.
The impact of the weather system was expected to be massive. Meteorologists said as much as 3 feet of snow might fall in some areas, propelled by winds as high as 75 miles per hour. Coastal communities were warned of towering waves that could cause major flooding. In Revere, Marshfield, and Scituate, police urged oceanfront residents to evacuate.
‘‘This is a storm of major proportions,’’ Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said Friday. ‘‘Stay off the roads. Stay home.’’
The National Weather Service said the fierce storm had the potential to rival New England’s worst winter storms and approach the Boston snowfall record of 27.6 inches, set in 2003. With snow still falling ferociously, more than a foot had already accumulated in some spots of Greater Boston.
As a result, the region’s transportation services shut down Friday afternoon. The final Amtrak train departed South Station at 1:40 p.m.; the last flight at Logan International Airport took off at 3:13 p.m.; and the MBTA stopped its subway, train, and bus service at 3:30 p.m.
“We’ve had a lot of misses when they say it’s going to be bad and nothing happens, but I don’t think that’s going to happen this time. I think it’s going to be bad,’’ said Linda Rinaldi of Norfolk, as she waited for a train. “I just hope it’s not as bad as 1978.’’
State transportation officials said they expected MBTA service to be running again by Monday morning.
Around the state, as of 1:30 a.m. Saturday, Randolph had received the highest amount of snow at 21.7 inches, Framingham got 18, and 17 inches of snow fell in Uxbridge, according to preliminary reports from the weather service. In the Boston area, East Boston received 10.1 inches as of midnight Saturday, Jamaica Plain got 11.5 inches by 10:29 p.m., and Chelsea had 15.5 inches at 11:29 p.m.
More than 2,000 utility crews were mobilized to respond to power outages, 4,000 pieces of snow-clearing equipment were expected on the roads, and 5,000 members of the National Guard were prepared to be activated. NStar, one of the four major utilities that serve the state, went on its highest alert, canceling vacations, and ordering all workers to be available.
By 2:30 a.m. Saturday, more than 380,000 power outages had been reported in the state, according to Massachusetts emergency officials. It appeared power was out in all of Quincy around midnight on Saturday, according to Jackie Barry, a spokeswoman for National Grid power company.
In Plymouth, the Pilgrim nuclear power plant experienced an automatic shutdown at 9:18 p.m. Friday due to a loss of off-site power caused by the storm, according to Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The plant declared an Unusual Event — the lowest of four levels of emergency classification — at about 10 p.m., Sheehan said. There were no complications as the reactor was shutting down, he added. Backup emergency diesel generators provided power to safety systems.
“We will be monitoring the cooldown of the reactor and efforts to restore off-site power,’’ Sheehan said.
In Revere, Scituate, and Marshfield, voluntary evacuation orders were issued shortly before the National Weather Service said the storm could wash out shore roads and damage homes along the coastline.
Scituate officials started knocking on doors early Friday, encouraging residents to leave their homes, said Town Administrator Patricia Vinchesi. “People were very responsive,’’ she said Friday evening. “Our sense is that many people were planning to go elsewhere.’’
Some Scituate residents waited with a blend of excitement and anxiety.
“I’m hoping we don’t lose power,’’ Marybrigid Vanaria said during a brisk three-mile walk with her neighbor’s dog Friday afternoon. “Other than that, I’m looking forward to digging snow. I like it. I’m that crazy person.’’
By mid-evening, parts of the town were pitch-black after power outages.
As high tide and coastal flooding hit the South Shore late Friday, residents were evacuated from about a dozen homes in Quincy, said police Sergeant Robert Bina.
In Marshfield, officials anticipated a storm surge of 4 to 5 feet during Saturday’s high tide, said Police Lieutenant Paul Taber, who is also the town’s emergency management director. “It’s very concerning,’’ he said.
Town officials did not think a mandatory evacuation order was necessary.
“A lot of people living in our coastal areas have lived here a long time,’’ Taber said. “They know when it’s time to leave. But there is always that person who may have just moved here, who has never expected a storm of this magnitude.’’
Despite predictions of a monster storm, the governor’s travel ban stunned some critics who depend on traffic and open roads — shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and even some police, who questioned whether to enforce the ban’s stiff penalties of a $500 fine and up to a year in jail.
But Michael S. Dukakis, who was governor during the Blizzard of ’78, praised the decision.
The latest blizzard hit almost 35 years to the day since that infamous storm, a 36-hour maelstrom of snow, destructive surf, and hurricane-force winds that began Feb. 6, 1978, and caused nearly 100 deaths in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and more than $500 million in damage.
The last major snowfall in southern New England occurred more than a year ago — the Halloween storm of 2011. Alan Dunham, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Taunton, said that southern New England had seen less than half its normal snowfall this season before the storm hit Friday. “We’re going to catch up in a heck of a hurry,’’ Dunham said.
On Friday evening, the National Weather Service predicted 2 feet of snow in Greater Boston. Elsewhere, according to meteorologist Lance Franck, “we’re thinking we may see slightly higher totals of 24 to 30 inches south and west of Boston, right along the I-95 corridor. We may see localized amounts of 2.5 feet.’’
By 10:51 p.m., the strongest recorded gusts had reached 76 miles per hour at Logan International Airport, with winds generally in the 50 to 60 mile-per-hour range around Boston. The snow was not expected to taper off until noon Saturday.
In Boston, Menino said a city hot line would be staffed around the clock for the next several days. The hot line number is 617-635-4500.
Menino also warned that a snow and parking ban was being enforced on major city arteries, and that any vehicles parked on those streets would be ticketed and towed.
Some garages offered reduced-price parking, which residents can use by showing a city parking sticker.
On Cape Cod, power went out just before 9 p.m. in downtown Sandwich, plunging the area into near-total darkness. At Sandwich High School, Michael White, 51, of Falmouth, said he had been skeptical about whether it would be necessary to come to the shelter there.
By early Friday afternoon, he was unimpressed by the rain and snow that had failed to accumulate on the roads. But just a few hours later, White said, he knew this one was a doozy.
“It’s coming down pretty heavy, isn’t it?’’ White said.
In New Hampshire, the seacoast braced for as much as 30 inches of snow, possible coastal flooding, and offshore seas of 25 to 30 feet. Governor Maggie Hassan urged residents to get off the roads by 7 p.m. Friday but did not ban driving.
In Boston, Logan Airport bustled Friday morning with people relieved to be getting in, and out, before the snow hit.
Lori Jacobson of Mashpee was among the lucky, able to rebook her Saturday trip to San Juan to 1 p.m. Friday, one of the last flights scheduled to leave the airport before the airlines shut down until at least Saturday afternoon.
Jacobson, an emergency room nurse at Cape Cod Hospital, was headed for a Caribbean cruise with her 17-year-old daughter and a few co-workers. Her sister-in-law drove them to the airport and was planning to stay at Jacobson’s house to watch her dogs.
“We’re deserting everybody: dogs, patients,’’ Jacobson said with a laugh, noting the temperature in the Caribbean was in the 80s. “I’m going to put a cold cocktail in my hands.’’
Kendall Square, the area’s hub for high-tech start-ups and software giants like Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., slowed to the speed of snail mail Friday.
Noah Cushing, a software engineer at MediaFriends Inc., a mobile software company, was the only one in his office Friday morning.
While the company closed for the day, he decided to venture in because his family was home, too. An overexcited 5-year-old eager to go sledding wouldn’t make it easy to work from home, he said.
But a quiet office did. “I probably got about two days of work done in a half day,’’ Cushing said.
Most shopping shut down early in the day, with many malls closing by 2 p.m. Movie theaters and the Boston Symphony Orchestra canceled Friday night performances.
The Revere Hotel near Boston Common decided to have fun with the weather, offering a $99 rate for displaced Massachusetts residents.
The hotel threw in complimentary hot chocolate starting at noon, a free screening of the movie “Ted’’ in the evening, and “Hot Ted-dies’’ at the bar.
The Charles River Hotel in Cambridge received cancellations because of the storm — with one notable exception. Actor Kiefer Sutherland was staying Friday night. The “24’’ star was in town to be celebrated at Harvard University as the Hasty Pudding theatrical group’s Man of the Year. Because of the storm, the event was to take place at the hotel instead of Harvard. Hotel staff planned to stay the night, general manager Alex Attia said. “It’s a pajama party.’’
In Waltham, Shoppers Cafe continued a decades-old tradition. The Moody Street establishment, which opened in the 1930s, has always served patrons during chart-topping storms — from recent hurricanes like Irene and Sandy, through flooding that plagued Waltham a few years ago, and even through the Blizzard of 1978, said Paul LaCava, the bar’s owner.
“We were open the entire time during ’78,’’ LaCava recalled, noting that he was in charge that week because his father — the owner then — had taken a trip to Florida. “He had ordered enough product here for a week. I had a full-time job in banking, but I couldn’t go to work, so I came here.’’