Downtown Woonsocket was deserted â€” rightly so â€” at sundown Saturday. Photo/Brian DeCesare
PROVIDENCE â€” New Englanders began the back-breaking job of digging out from as much as 3 feet of snow Saturday and emergency crews used snowmobiles to reach shivering motorists stranded overnight on New York's Long Island after a howling storm swept through the Northeast.
About 650,000 homes and businesses were left without electricity, and some could be cold and dark for days. Many roads across the New York-to-Boston corridor of roughly 25 million people were impassable. Cars were entombed by drifts. And some people woke up in the morning to find the snow packed so high they couldn't get their doors open.
"It's like lifting cement. They say it's 2 feet, but I think it's more like 3 feet," said Michael Levesque, who was shoveling snow in Quincy, Mass., as part of a work crew for a landscaping company.
At least four deaths in the U.S. were blamed on the overnight snowstorm, including an 11-year-old boy in Boston who was overcome by carbon monoxide as he sat in a running car to keep warm while his father shoveled Saturday morning.
In Providence, Jason Harrison had been working for nearly three hours to clear 3 feet of snow that blocked his driveway and front walk and still had more work to do. His snowblower, he said, "has already paid for itself."
But neighbors Rebekah and John Speck strapped on cross-country skis and coasted past snowdrifts 5 feet high and drooping telephone lines encrusted with snow.
Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee cautioned that while the snow had stopped, the danger hadn't passed: "People need to take this storm seriously, even after it's over. If you have any kind of heart condition, be careful with the shoveling."
Blowing with hurricane-force winds of more than 80 mph in places, the storm appeared to hit hardest along the heavily populated Interstate 95 corridor between the New York metropolitan area and Maine. Milford., Conn., got 38 inches of snow, and Portland, Maine, recorded 31.9, shattering a 1979 record. Several communities in New York and across New England got more than 2 feet.
Still, the storm was not as bad as some of the forecasts led many to fear, and not as dire as the Blizzard of '78, used by longtime New Englanders as the benchmark by which all other winter storms are measured.
By midday Saturday, the National Weather Service reported preliminary snowfall totals of 21.8 inches in Boston, ranking the storm sixth for all-time snowfall. Bradley Airport near Hartford, Conn., got 22 inches, for No. 2 in the record books.
In New York, where Central Park recorded 11 inches, not even enough to make the all-time Top 10 list, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city "dodged a bullet" and its streets were "in great shape." The three major airports â€” LaGuardia, Kennedy and Newark, N.J. â€” were up and running by late morning after shutting down the evening before.
Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island imposed travel bans until 4 p.m. to keep cars off the road and let plows do their work, and National Guardsmen joined state crews in clearing Connecticut highways.
On Long Island, which got more than 2Â˝ feet of snow, hundreds of drivers spent a cold and scary night stuck on the highways. Even snowplows got bogged down or were blocked by stuck or abandoned cars, so emergency workers used snowmobiles to try to reach motorists, many of whom were still waiting to be rescued hours after the snow had stopped.
One of those who was eventually rescued, Priscilla Arena, prayed as she waited, took out a sheet of loose-leaf paper and wrote what she thought might be her last words to her husband and children, ages 5 and 9. Among her advice: "Remember all the things that mommy taught you. Never say you hate someone you love."
Richard Ebbrecht, a chiropractor, left his office in Brooklyn at 3 p.m. on Friday and headed for home in Middle Island, N.Y., but got stuck six or seven times on the Long Island Expressway and other roads.
"There was a bunch of us Long Islanders. We were all helping each other, shoveling, pushing," he said. He finally gave up and settled in for the night in his car just two miles from his destination. At 8 a.m., when it was light out, he walked home.
"I could run my car and keep the heat on and listen to the radio a little bit," he said. "It was very icy under my car. That's why my car is still there."
Across much of New England, streets were empty of cars and dotted instead with children who had never seen so much snow and were jumping into snowbanks and making forts. Snow was waist-high in the mostly empty streets of Boston. Plows made some thoroughfares passable but piled even more snow on cars parked on the city's narrow streets.
Boston's Logan Airport was not expected to resume operations until late Saturday night.
Around the New York metropolitan area, many victims of Superstorm Sandy were mercifully spared another round of flooding, property damage and power failures.
"I was very lucky and I never even lost power," said Susan Kelly of Bayville. "We were dry as anything. My new roof was fantastic. Other than digging out, this storm was a nice storm." As for the shoveling, "I got two hours of exercise."
Some homes in Massachusetts had to be evacuated because of coastal flooding, including in Salisbury Beach, where around 40 people were ordered out.
Among them were Ed and Nancy Bemis, who heard waves crashing and rolling underneath their home, which sits on stilts. At one point, Ed Bemis went outside to take pictures, and a wave came up, blew out their door and knocked down his wife.
"The objects were flying everywhere at the beginning. If you went in there, it looks like two big guys got in a big, big fight. It tore the doors right off their hinges. It's a mess," he said.
The Postal Service took the rare step of closing post offices and suspending mail delivery Saturday in New England.
Some people managed to make it to work. In Westborough, Mass., Christina's Cafe opened at 6 a.m. as usual to serve breakfast to snowplow operators. Kim Lupien was the only one of the restaurant's six waitresses who made it to work, climbing through snowdrifts from her home nearby.
"People expect us to be open, so we're open," she said with a shrug. Lupien added that she grew up in snowy Maine: "That's why it doesn't affect me much."