One of the most furious winter storms ever measured on the East Coast unleashed blizzard-like conditions from Virginia to Maine Thursday, driving icy sea water into downtown Boston and coastal Massachusetts towns in a surge reminiscent of the Blizzard of ’78.
With astronomically high tides peaking as the storm raged, streets were flooded in Scituate, Marshfield, Quincy, and other coastal communities, all the way out to Provincetown. In Boston, water crashed into the Seaport District. Sea water bubbled up from storm drains and flooded multiple streets to depths many longtime residents had never seen before.
The flooding caused extensive damage and forced evacuations around the region. Governor Charlie Baker said dozens of communities in Massachusetts were affected. He said there was one death potentially linked to the storm, an apparent heart attack in Quincy.
When high tide hit around 12:45 p.m., it appeared that Boston Harbor saw its greatest tide swell since the infamous 1978 nor’easter.
As water cascaded down its steps, the MBTA’s Aquarium Station, on the Boston waterfront, was closed until further notice.
“It’s all over the place,’’ said Boston Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald.
As the region cleaned up from the storm and prepared for an imminent blast of arctic air, leaders in Boston and many other local communities said schools would remain closed on Friday.
Snow began in Greater Boston around 7 a.m. It fell fast and was whipped sideways by wind. Downtown Boston was something of a ghost town, as many commuters stayed home.
As of 9:20 p.m., the National Weather Service reported that nearly 17 inches of snow had fallen in Taunton, 14.2 inches in Danvers, 16.6 in Worcester, 13.5 in Natick, 14.5 in Quincy, 16.3 in Charlestown, and 13.2 inches at Logan International Airport.
Earlier, in Winthrop, Diandra Jewell stood outside her home on Shirley Street with a shovel in her hand and watched a front-end loader navigate the wet slush flooding her road.
“I’m not sure if I should leave,” she said. “I’m not sure if me and my cat should get out of here before it’s too late.”
In Dorchester, firefighters waded through ankle-deep water and carried a man to safety after his car was swamped by quickly rising water in Neponset Circle. In Quincy, cars were trapped in water near the Neponset River and along the coast, police said. In Chatham, at the elbow of Cape Cod, officials evacuated residents from flooded areas.
In Scituate, often the target of nor’easter storm surges, there was a partial break of the sea wall on Oceanside Drive, officials said, and 26 people were evacuated from their homes. Many there said they’d never seen the water rise so high so quickly.
Marshfield fire officials said more than 20 people had to evacuate their houses, and an additional eight or nine people were helped out of their cars after they got stuck in the flood waters.
Quincy fire officials said about 20 people had been rescued from flooded areas, and the mayor’s office said East Squantum Street, Pawsey Street, Rockland Street, and Sachem Street, along with several smaller streets, were at one point impassable.
The National Weather Service said a number of additional coastal communities had reported flooding by the afternoon, including Dennis, Oak Bluffs, Vineyard Haven, Gloucester, and Nantucket.
On Cape Cod and the Islands, hurricane-force wind gusts were reported. A gust of 75 miles per hour was recorded in Wellfleet, and a gust of 76 miles per hour was recorded in Nantucket. Hurricane-force winds are those that blow at 74 miles per hour or greater. Gusts in the 60-mile-per-hour range were also reported in Falmouth and Chatham.
In Provincetown, at the tip of the Cape, power was out in nearly the entire town for a short period of time while Eversource fixed a transmission issue caused by the powerful winds.
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency reported at about 4:30 p.m. Thursday that 20,592 electric customers had lost power, many of them south of Boston and on Cape Cod. By 7 p.m., that number was down to 11,000.
As the region began shaking off the snow Thursday night, stinging cold was on its way.
Benjamin Sipprell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said a “flash freeze” could cause icy roads in the region Thursday night, particularly in southeast Plymouth County, Cape Cod, and the Islands. Temperatures are expected to plummet into the single digits Thursday night, he said.
“The cold air is rushing in tonight as the storm pushes out to sea,” he said of Thursday night. “The air we’re about to see might be some of the coldest we’ve seen for years.”
By next week, temperatures will warm a bit, into the 30s, becoming more typical for January.
A majority of arrivals and departures were canceled Thursday at Boston Logan International Airport. On the MBTA, volume during the morning commute was well below normal, as people heeded warnings about the storm, said MBTA general manager Luis Ramírez. He said the MBTA has deployed equipment, workers, and machinery in hopes of avoiding a repeat of 2015, when a series of fierce storms threw the system into disarray.
“The key is keeping an eye on the ball and make sure that everybody [working on the T] is doing it in a safe way,’’ Ramirez said. “We are going to see a lot more challenges out there.”
The MBTA plans to return to normal commuter rail service Friday after running a limited schedule during Thursday’s storm. The ferry system will not run Friday for a second straight day.
Deputy general manager Jeff Gonneville said the snow could complicate preparations for the extreme cold. For example, crews may not be able to clear snow from tracks overnight and store subway trains underground — a key strategy during cold temperatures to prevent vehicle malfunctions.
“We’ll have to make a judgment call about what will give us the better chances for success at [Friday’s] rush,” Gonneville said. “Is it clearing the right of way? Is it moving the trains around the tunnel? Is it doing a hybrid of both, which is probably what we’re going to try and do.”
Tonight will be a very, very busy night at the MBTA.”