Northeast hunkers down as snowstorm sweeps through

ELMONT, Mass. — Communities across the East Coast hunkered down as a potentially historic snowstorm swept through the region, grounding flights, knocking out power and forcing many to stay inside and wait.

By evening, around half a foot of snow had fallen in areas of Boston, although meteorologists were still predicting 2 feet or more. Strong wind gusts up to 70 mph swept through New England, knocking out power for thousands, and making life miserable for dozens of local TV reporters stuck in the thick of it.

The storm stretched down the eastern corridor to New York City, which experienced less snow, although lightning and heavy winds were reported off the coast of Long Island.

It was a novelty for a region usually known for its wicked weather, but that hasn’t seen a significant snowstorm in two years. Meteorologists were already predicting that this storm could be one for the history books.

“If you head to Boston, that’s where ground zero is, it will rank up there with some more historic storms, including Blizzard of ‘78,” said Thomas Downs, a meteorologist with consulting firm Weather 2000.

That blizzard killed nearly 100 people and shut down the city of Boston, surprising commuters who got stranded along highways and, in some cases, abandoned their cars.

To avoid a similar situation, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency, shutting down public transit and banning all cars from the roads after 4 p.m. Those who break the ban could face penalties of hefty fines and jail time, Patrick said. No similar driving ban has been enacted in the state since 1978.

States of emergency were also declared in New York, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

“You’ve heard of ‘Finding Nemo.’ It seems like Nemo has found us,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, referring to the name the Weather Channel has given the storm.

Emergency officials were especially concerned about the potential for floods along the coast of New England, which is expecting a particularly ferocious hide tide Saturday morning. They began evacuating communities in two Massachusetts coastal towns, Scituate and Marshfield, Friday night.

An estimated 4,300 flights were canceled in and out of airports in New York and Boston, and Amtrak canceled trains between Boston and New York.

Boston is expected to bear the brunt of the storm, with some communities expecting 2 feet or more.

“Three feet of snow in this period of time is a profoundly different kind of storm than we have dealt with,” Patrick said in a news conference.

With transportation shut down and people forbidden from driving, the streets were eerily quiet in Boston. As night fell, streets were dark, aside from squares of light shining in individual houses. The noise of traffic was nearly absent, except for the whir of snowplows.

In Belmont, a suburb of Boston, Daniel Kilgore and his son Noah engaged in a snowball fight with some neighbors; after a relative snow drought, the Kilgores were getting as much snow time as they could. The last storm of this magnitude in Boston was in January 2011, when the region received 14 inches. Record snowfall in Boston was 27.6 inches, set in 2003.

“He’s loving it,” said Kilgore, a student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, about his son, who was using a snowball maker to create perfect spheres.

Residents rushed to the stores Friday to stock up on groceries, preparing to potentially be stuck in their homes for a day or two. Deb Haley bought frozen junk food, as well as ingredients to make homemade chicken noodle soup, spaghetti and meatballs and sweets.

“I intend to bake like heck,” said Haley, who lives in Belmont.

Most Massachusetts schools were not in session Friday. But in New York, much of life went on as usual.

Schools remained open, subways and buses were running, and Broadway shows were going on as scheduled, a contrast to the run-up to Hurricane Sandy. As the snow began falling, the line outside the half-price booth in Times Square to purchase last-minute bargain tickets to Broadway shows was crammed with people huddled beneath umbrellas.

Rick and Sue Constance, visiting from St. Louis, were deciding what to see. They hadn’t expected snow when they planned their visit, which began Tuesday. “But we’re prepared,” Rick said, showing off their snow boots.

It’s possible that New Yorkers learned from Hurricane Sandy to prepare well, and stay inside when big storms churn through.

“In sum, this is a serious severe storm,” Cuomo said. “But we just went through some really terrible storms with Hurricane Sandy. We are not anticipating anything like that.”