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Ocean roared into homes, flooded streets

SALISBURY — It happened in seconds.

Lynn and Augie Papetti were furiously shoveling a wall of snow deposited against their garage door by the rampaging nor’easter that struck New England on Friday and Saturday.

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Then, with scant warning, a cascade of water, broken decking, and siding encircled them.

They were stranded, water rising fast.

National Guard troops, equipped with a front-end loader, appeared. The Papettis and some neighbors — three at a time — clambered into the bucket of the loader, already coated with snow. Down North End Boulevard they went, to safety and waiting ambulances.

“We’ve had water come up to the building before, but the force of this water was scary,” Lynn Papetti said several hours later as the couple waited with about 40 other residents who were evacuated to a makeshift shelter in this seaside town’s senior center.

Many, still clad in soggy clothes, said they barely had time to grab their medications and other necessities before the evacuation of North End Boulevard, a hodgepodge of three-story wood condominiums and apartments.

Salisbury officials had warned residents in a reverse 911 call Friday night that the town might face flooding during the blizzard’s expected high tide at 10 a.m. Saturday, but authorities hadn’t envisioned such a powerful wallop, said Kristine Harrison, assistant director of Salisbury’s Emergency Management Agency.

Debris is piled up in a home that was hit by a wave and flooded in Salisbury on Saturday.

Winslow Townson for The Globe

Debris is piled up in a home that was hit by a wave and flooded in Salisbury on Saturday.

“It hasn’t been this bad since the Blizzard [of 1978],” Harrison said.

It was a sentiment, and an experience, writ wide and far along the Massachusetts coast, with the suddenly displaced clambering into rescue vehicles on the South Shore and water flooding vulnerable towns like Winthrop.

Hours after the Papettis were liberated, as the water started to recede along North End Boulevard, knee-deep frozen sea foam, sand, snow, and pieces of decking bore witness to the force of the waves.

The Papetti’s condominium building appeared, at least from the outside, to have weathered the storm largely intact.

The same could not be said two doors down, at the first-floor condominium of Edward and Nancy Bemis.

The couple had been outside filming waves crashing just a few feet from their deck. As Nancy Bemis went back inside the water suddenly rose, thundered over the deck, and pounded though their living room glass doors.

The glass crashed down on her, and she sustained a gash on her forehead.

“I had been out there just before that trying to figure out if we were going to be in trouble,” Edward Bemis said.

In a heartbeat, the couple had gone from watching the waves in awe from their deck to fighting a torrent of water cascading through their home.

“It blew us back like a cannon,” said Edward Bemis, 66. Never, he said, had he encountered such menacing waves, not even during his four years in the Navy.

“I’ve still got sand in my ears,” said his 62-year-old wife, whose forehead was now bandaged and bruised after being hit by the flying door.

Their 16-year-old granddaughter, who was visiting them, snapped a picture of the destruction on her phone, grabbed her schoolbooks and tuba, and threw them out of harm’s way before the three evacuated.

Hours later, a phone receiver dangled from a table near where the living room doors once stood. Sand covered the floor, and sheared-off pieces of the deck were strewn about like paper.

The Bemises said they rent the condo and don’t have insurance to cover destruction to their personal belongings.

By 5 p.m., emergency management authorities said structural engineers had examined all of the North End Boulevard buildings, and all but one was certified safe to return.

The gas heat had been shut off earlier in the day, but as night descended it was restored, suggesting that there would be no cold night for residents.

The Papettis, it turned out, had more than one reason to celebrate their return home. Saturday was Lynn’s 60th birthday — a day she had planned to spend quietly with a few friends and a lobster dinner.

“Since I’m a little kid, half of my birthday parties had to be postponed or canceled because of winter storms,” Lynn Papetti said. “I’m used to it.”

“I’m going home,” she declared, “and drinking some champagne.”

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com.
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