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Massive storm pelts the region, cutting electricity to hundreds of thousands of people

Cat Bette (left) and and Hannah Corey walked George through Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park during the snowstorm in downtown Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Packing brute force winds, a bomb cyclone of a winter storm barraged much of Eastern Massachusetts Saturday, cutting power to hundreds of thousands of people, disrupting travel, and leaving officials scrambling to assess the damage.

With its blinding snow and punishing winds, the nor’easter drew comparisons to the devastating Blizzard of ‘78, which dumped more than 27 inches of snow on Boston. The National Weather Service said the storm was a bomb cyclone, essentially a winter hurricane, as a result of the rapid drop in air pressure and strengthening of the storm.

By early evening, the weather service confirmed the winter storm as a blizzard for Boston, Worcester, and Providence, as well as other locations in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The snowfall in Boston was measured at 23.5 inches at Logan Airport as of 7 p.m. Saturday, according to the weather service.

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Speaking at a news conference Saturday evening, Governor Charlie Baker said the cleanup could continue into Monday.

“It’s been a very long storm. We’re not quite out of the woods yet,” he said.

The storm, with gusts of up to 83 miles per hour, appeared to hit the hardest on Cape Cod, especially Provincetown, where nearly all 3,000 residents lost power.

“I was shaken awake this morning by what felt like an earthquake — my bed was trembling and the wind sounded like a freight train,” said Lise King, 57, who has lived in Provincetown for decades and described the nor’easter as one of the most powerful storms to hit the small town at the tip of Cape Cod.

Without power, she dressed in multiple layers of long underwear to stay warm. “I opened the front door briefly to take a look and could feel the air pressure change during a gust, like it was pulling me out the door. I can’t say I recall anything quite like this.”

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Rob Megnia, a meteorologist with a weather service office in Norton, said forecasters were expecting about 2 feet or more of snowfall to hit southeastern Massachusetts, with as much as 2 1/2 inches of snow falling per hour there.

For some areas, snow totals could be higher. There were isolated reports of snow falling as fast as 3 to 4 inches per hour on Saturday morning, he said. Snow totals were expected to reach as much as 30 inches from Kingston to Hanson.

In Stoughton, the snow was falling up to 4 inches per hour, local officials said.

“The story from our plow truck drivers is that visibility is awful,” said Robin Grimm, Stoughton’s town manager.

Megnia said the storm differed significantly from the Blizzard of ‘78, primarily as a result of less severe coastal flooding. “Flooding was a huge impact from that [1978] storm,” he said.

Saturday’s storm produced coastal flooding in some areas, he said, but it has been “nothing compared to what happened in 1978.”

Along with Boston and Worcester, blizzard conditions were also confirmed in Beverly, Hyannis, Marshfield, and Martha’s Vineyard, the weather service said. In Rhode Island, along with Providence, Westerly, Newport, and Block Island met the blizzard criteria, according to the weather service.

A storm that reaches blizzard status has sustained wind or frequent gusts of at least 35 miles per hour, and considerable falling or blowing snow that reduces visibility to no more than a quarter-mile. Those conditions must last for at least three hours, according to the weather service.

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Officials at the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency said they activated state and regional emergency operations centers to monitor the storm, coordinate response efforts, and support affected communities, said spokesman Christopher Besse.

Eversource officials said the company had more than 1,000 crews working across the Commonwealth to restore power to customers.

“The heavy snowfall, strong winds, and blizzard-like conditions can be challenging for restoration efforts, and we thank our customers for their patience,” said Christopher McKinnon, a company spokesman, in a statement.

Strong winds and hazardous road conditions would delay some repairs, he said.

As of 8 p.m., Eversource said it had restored power to more than 196,000 Massachusetts customers, including those who lost power more than once Saturday. It will continue an around-the-clock effort to restore about 87,500 customers who remained without power, it said.

Michael Dalo, a National Grid spokesman, said that the company brought in workers from outside the region to help make repairs.

“Restoration work is dependent on ensuring conditions are safe to proceed,” he said.

As of 9:30 p.m., the utility reported it had 4,646 customers without power in Massachusetts, including 3,130 on Nantucket. The island saw persistent winds of 50 miles per hour and gusts topping 70 miles per hour, according to the utility.

National Grid, in a statement, said it had about 2,900 field personnel responding to power outages in Massachusetts Saturday.

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State Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver said plows had a difficult time keeping up with the snow and urged motorists to stay off the roads until they were cleared properly.

“The roadways are just as terrible frankly as we had expected them to be,” he said. “When you see it come down anything over 2 inches per hour, your plows just cannot keep up. They scrape it down the bare pavement and then it’s covered within 15 minutes.”

About 3,000 pieces of equipment have been deployed to remove snow, Gulliver said, and the state has the capacity to add about 1,000 more pieces of equipment, if needed. He expected the cleanup would continue into Sunday.

“We really don’t want people to take any dangerous trips if they don’t have to,” he said. “It’s going to probably be a long cleanup.”

While all flights were canceled on Saturday at Logan International Airport, most commuter rail, subway, and bus systems continued to operate, according to Steve Poftak, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

“If our staff in the field feels it’s unsafe, we will cease service on a particular route,” he said. “Two to four inches per hour is not something that can be dealt with easily.”

In Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu said more than 900 pieces of equipment were deployed to clear the massive snow accumulation, which was expected to fall short, however, of the record 27.6 inches that fell in 2003.

“This is the most pieces of equipment we’ve ever had out for a storm,” she said. “We’re hoping that that will mean that we can dig out at a reasonable pace.”

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The pace of the cleanup would determine whether schools could open as planned on Monday, she said.

City officials and local groups scrambled to provide additional shelter for the homeless. At the Pine Street Inn, outreach teams worked Saturday to persuade people who typically stay outdoors overnight to go to a shelter, said Barbara Trevisan, a spokeswoman.

“We’ve been working closely with the city and other shelters to make sure everybody gets accommodated,” she said. “We’re not turning away anyone.”

As city officials struggled to keep up with the storm, much of Boston felt desolate throughout the long day.

In the Seaport, howling winds churned up big waves that crashed over the seawall protecting the neighborhood from Boston Harbor, which spread slicks of icy saltwater across the coastal walking path.

It was a reminder about the dangers of climate change, which has been making storms more powerful and more likely to include greater amounts of precipitation. More intense storms, combined with rising sea levels, mean there is likely to be greater flooding in the coming years from similar nor’easters.

State officials estimate some 84,000 state residents are already at risk of coastal flooding. By 2050, they project an additional 133,000 people will face such risks.

For Kara Doran, who has seen parts of the Seaport flood repeatedly, she hoped the storm would pass without incident.

As she walked her dog on Saturday morning, with one plow after another passing her, she struggled to open her eyes as small flakes pelted her from seemingly every direction.

Trudging through shin-deep snow, the 34-year-old was among the few to venture into the neighborhood’s desolate streets — most of them miserable people walking happy dogs.

In the three years she has lived in the Seaport, it was the worst storm she had seen.

“I hope it doesn’t get worse,” she said.

Globe correspondents Andrew Brinker and Nick Stoico, and Taylor Dolven of the Globe staff contributed to this report.




David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel. John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com. Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.