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Boston escapes major damage from Sandy

Fierce winds knock down trees, rattle houses, and cut electricity to thousands

An electrical worker secured wires knocked down by falling branches in Watertown.

John Blanding/Globe Staff

An electrical worker secured wires knocked down by falling branches in Watertown.

The outer reaches of Hurricane Sandy pummeled Boston on Monday with startling ferocity for a storm whose center was so far away, buffeting the city with winds exceeding 50 miles per hour and pushing surf over sea walls.

Mostly, the storm acted like a giant weed whacker, breaking branches, toppling trees, and dragging down power lines. In Hyde Park on Metropolitan Avenue, the wind snapped the top off a tall maple. Two people narrowly escaped after a tree crashed onto their car on the VFW Parkway. A tree barreled into a gas lamp on Pinckney Street in Beacon Hill.

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In Brighton, Brad Walmsley sat on his couch at 11:30 a.m. holding his newborn son and watching “The Price is Right.” From outside, Walmsley heard a crack that sounded like thunder. A 50-foot-tall tree hit the roof and all three back porches of the three-family home on Faneuil Street and crashed onto his work truck.

“The house shook,” Walmsley said. “My son’s nursery is in that back area. I’m just thankful there was no damage to that and nobody got hurt.

Walmsley may have personified Boston’s experience with Hurricane Sandy: a few moments of terror, but no major damage, injuries, or loss of life.

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As of 8 p.m., the city received 500 reports of tree emergencies and 211 reports of downed wires, via the mayor’s 24-hour hotline. No significant flooding was reported. The hotline had managed 3,913 calls. Roughly 7,000 homes in the city lost power, as did police station C11 in Dorchester, where authorities said they planned to send a generator.

To monitor storm damage and dispatch resources, the city relied on its nerve center, a squat brick building on Bragdon Street in Roxbury called the Boston Emergency Operations Center.

As of 8 p.m., the city received 500 reports of tree emergencies and 211 reports of downed wires.

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The windowless, bunker-like structure has a central war room with five rows of desks outfitted with 40 laptops and telephones.

Two dozen officials — police, fire, emergency medical services, parks, NStar, Salvation Army, and more — worked the computers and telephones in a constant frenzy.

At the front of the room, two massive screens the size of small swimming pools displayed the damage in real-time as Sandy proceeded across the city. An electrical transformer exploded at Marion and Princeton streets in East Boston. Another tree fell across Cypress Street in West Roxbury. A 30-foot billboard crashed down on Hyde Park Avenue near Forest Hills. A scaffolding pulled away from a seven-story building on Newbury Street.

The city’s effort was coordinated by Ronald Bashista, a man with a clean-shaven head whose voice booms with the authority of a drill sergeant. Bashista is a retired US Army lieutenant colonel who served two combat tours in Iraq. His experience showed as he shouted updates.

“High winds expected from 1400 to 2200,” Bashista said, pacing with urgency and a smile up the middle aisle between desks. “Good news all around. The window for downed trees has shrunk considerably.”

Bashista said his job was to harness the experience of officials in the room, in what he called a “synergy of responses.”

“What’s going on in there,” Bashista said of the storm operations center, “is very similar to a tactical operations center for the Army.”

Mayor Thomas M. Menino monitored the storm from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he was admitted Friday after doctors diagnosed him with a virus and a blood clot in his leg that apparently developed on a long flight to Italy.

Menino received regular updates on conference calls with his chief of staff, Mitch Weiss; chief of policy and planning, Michael Kineavy; and press secretary, Dot Joyce.

Most Bostonians heeded warnings and stayed home. Pedestrians were scarce in the Fenway and Back Bay as rain fell steadily and winds gusted. On Huntington Avenue, a few dedicated athletes got in one last morning run before the storm, while last-minute shoppers picked up essentials.

On Chauncey Street, Patrick Gullotti prepared to return home to Winthrop after laying tile in a Dunkin’ Donuts. Gullotti, 33, described himself as an amateur meteorologist and worried that cynics would underestimate what could be another “Perfect Storm.”

“It doesn’t look that bad right now, but I want to say hell is coming,” he said. “When you have these systems come in, smashing into one another, you can have a real disaster area.”

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.
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