NEWBURYPORT — The promise of one of the biggest forecasted storms in recorded history barreled into the region today, putting local officials and public safety crews on high alert and communities across the Northeast under a state of emergency.
Massachusetts will remain under a state of emergency through Saturday and the region remains under a blizzard warning until at least midday Saturday as well. Many communities instituted their own snow emergencies, with most restricting on-street parking at least into Sunday.
Shelters have been set up throughout Greater Newburyport in the event coastal residents are forced to evacuate or people find themselves without electricity and heat for extended periods.
On Plum Island, the National Guard is on alert as residents rushed to protect their homes from the storm's force. Worse-case scenarios predict more than 2 feet of snow, blizzard-level winds and astronomically high tides, with the barrier island expected to be hit hard. Four homes previously under seize from erosion are being watched closely by local as well as state officials.
A phone alert went out to all residents of Plum Island: "During the height of the storm, we may be unable to access the island because of white-out conditions and tidal flooding. This includes police, fire and ambulance service. We are positioning emergency equipment on the island but that does not guarantee our ability to respond."
Officials in both Salisbury and Seabrook were also concerned about flooding and erosion along their beaches. Salisbury Emergency Management Director Bob Cook said he feared Saturday's 10 a.m. tide the most.
"This is a very, very serious storm," Cook said.
In Massachusetts, officials issued a Severe Weather Emergency Declaration under the Wetlands Protection Act, according to Salisbury Conservation Agent Michelle Rowden. That allows mitigation measures to be taken without the need of filing a formal "notice of intent" should property near wetland areas be jeopardized.
According to Rowden, the measure is often taken during severe storms, especially those that affect the coast.
"They did this for Super Storm Sandy and for all storms when erosion is anticipated," Rowden said. "(The declaration means) if the storm is causing damage to property, owners can take action to abate the damage without filing a notice of intent."
But if action is taken in protected areas, Rowden said property owners must still notify the Conservation Department, by phone or email, of the actions being taken.
"I have my cell phone with me, and I've gotten calls at 11 at night," Rowden said. "And I'll be back on Saturday after the storm to check on the beach. I'm always surprised to find how much or how little erosion a storm causes."
Newburyport harbormaster Paul Hogg said today that he and his team were monitoring the city's riverfront. He said the piers that have been taken out of the river at Cashman Park have been tied down in the parking lot.
Hogg added he hoped several fishing boats tied in the embayment at the base of Market Landing Park would weather the storm.
"Two fishing boats are secured on the eastern part of the embayment, and I think they will be fine," he said. "Another boat is on the other side, and I hope it doesn't take a thrashing."
Hogg said he was attempting to reach the owner of the vulnerable fishing craft to discuss how it might be more securely tied.
"We had a meeting of city officials and emergency teams (Thursday) and I think we are ready," Hogg said.
On Thursday, Mayor Donna Holaday urged residents to stay at home if possible. "The roads must be kept clear. Don't go out if you don't have to." A pre-recorded phone message went to residents and warnings were posted on the city's website.
Grocery stores in the region that were packed first thing this morning were closing early and most retail stores in downtown Newburyport called it quits by mid-day today.
The Merrimack Valley Regional Transportation Authority canceled all bus service for Saturday.
But even before conditions worsened, accidents were being reported.
Around 11 a.m. today, not long after the snow began to fall, a woman was extricated from her vehicle after her Honda SUV flipped over and crashed on the Chain Bridge in Amesbury leading into Newburyport.
Amesbury fire Lt. Jim Nolan said responding fire and police officials found the vehicle on its roof at the side of the road. The driver was trapped inside, but Nolan said they were able to rescue her and that she suffered minor injuries only. She was taken to Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport for treatment.
Statewide, Gov. Deval Patrick banned vehicle travel on all roads starting at 4 p.m. today and the MBTA ceased operations at 3:30 p.m.
Patrick called the blizzard “a profoundly different kind of storm than we have dealt with” and the projected snowfall rate of 2 to 3 inches per hour would make "safe travel nearly impossible.”
Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency Director Kurt Schwartz said that a similar executive order banning vehicular travel went into effect after the blizzard of '78 and said he is unaware of any similar ban since then.
The order was an “outright ban on all roads” with no set time for when it would be lifted. There are exceptions for public utility and health care workers as well as delivery trucks and news media. Schwartz said that the maximum penalty for people who violate the ban is one-year imprisonment.
As of midday today, there were 1,000 National Guard troops, and Patrick said nearly 5,000 would be in place over the course of the weekend. The Department of Transportation had 1,600 pieces of equipment on the roads around noon today, and planned to bring that number up to 4,000 as the storm intensified.
A total of 2,000 utility teams were in place, though work repairing downed wires was not expected to begin until the storm is over, according to Patrick and Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Richard Sullivan.
“Prepare for the possibility of being shut in and at home for the next 24 or 48 hours,” Patrick advised this afternoon. He said drifts could grow to 5 feet and while saying he understood the desire for some exploring once the storm subsided, he asked people do so safely. “There are hazards under this winter wonderland,” he said.
Patrick advised people with generators to make sure to vent them, people with wells to fill their bathtubs with water and everyone to turn up the cooling devices on their refrigerators.
The State House News Service contributed to this report.