The Cape and Islands escaped the worst-case snowfall forecast for the area, but what did fall during Tuesday's blizzard was wet, heavy and wind-driven, bringing down trees, snapping power lines and causing more than 125,000 power outages across the region.
Provincetown, Chatham, Nantucket were entirely blacked out for hours. Harwich wasn’t far behind, with 97 percent of the town waiting for the lights to come back on. As of Wednesday morning, over 98,000 outages across the Cape and Islands were reported, with 82 percent of Orleans still in the dark.
That wait may take days for some people, said Priscilla Ress, an Eversource spokeswoman.
“The high winds are really causing a lot of trouble,” she said.
The winds have taken down so many trees and power lines, that it is even tough for workers to get around to assess the damage.
Much of the repair work is done in bucket trucks, and the wind that lashed the Cape on Monday kept workers on the ground in many cases, she said.
“These conditions have been pretty brutal,” she said.
Repeated storms and the outages that come with them have been brutal on customers as well.
Janice James' Osterville house was in the dark again after losing power for three days in the last storm. James and her four children spent Tuesday eating baked goods she made before the storm and hoping the lights and heat come back soon.
"We are freezing," the 39-year-old said.
Because of the outages, the Barnstable County Regional Emergency Planning Committee opened three of its regional shelters in Sandwich, Hyannis and Harwich.
In Provincetown, officials opened a warming center at the Veterans Memorial Community Center, said Town Manager David Panagore.
An alert announcing the center's opening went out to more than 2,000 people, but as of 4 p.m., fewer than a dozen people had come in. By 6 p.m., only 24 percent of town was without power.
The roads in town were slick, Panagore said. In his four-wheel-drive truck, he slid just backing out of a parking spot.
“We don’t want people to needlessly travel,” he said.
By 5:30 p.m. 9 inches of snow had fallen in Falmouth and 8 inches in Harwich. About 9 inches had fallen in Hyannis by 3 p.m. and 8 inches in Bourne by 1:40 p.m., according to National Weather Service spotters.
The storm disrupted travel by sea, land and air. Ferries were canceled for the day as were flights to and from the islands.
Travel at times could be hazardous. Streetlights were out in several towns across the Cape. Bourne police Lt. Brandon Esip was driving with his partner, Detective John Stowe, on Bournedale Road when a tree fell just in front of him.
A dashboard camera caught the scene on tape and, although trees and power lines had been coming down across town, the fallen tree was still a surprise.
“It wasn’t expected,” he said.
A tree also fell right in front of an Eversource crew member in Falmouth, Ress said.
Nine roads in Bourne were completely impassable due to downed trees and power lines.
“Everything is just falling,” Esip said, as he was preparing to go back out into the storm. “It’s going to be a process to clean up.”
Falmouth police and Barnstable public works officials said that by early afternoon there were more than 100 reports of downed trees and wires in each town. Falmouth also held the dubious title of the highest recorded winds during the storm — an 80 mph gust at 12:51 p.m. in East Falmouth — and the most snowfall with 9.2 inches.
If falling trees, branches and power lines weren’t enough, some of them came with fire. There were multiple reports of electric lines on fire as well as trees and other things they touched, including a home on Bearse's Way in Hyannis, which caught fire when a line came down across its front steps. Firefighters were able to put the fire out before the house was damaged further.Eversource customer power outages. Updated every 15 minutes. Click on town for data: Source: Eversource | Interactive map: Gregory Bryant / Cape Cod Times
Nantucket didn’t see a lot of snow, less than 6 inches, but with no power on the island, the town opened up the emergency shelter at the high school to everyone, including pets, said Nantucket police Lt. Angus MacVicar. He said eight residents had arrived at the shelter as of about 4 p.m.
As on the Cape, trees had been coming down all over the island, but MacVicar said he hadn’t heard of any property damage.
Problems at substations in Barnstable and Harwich were the cause of the outages, knocking out power to the two undersea cables that supply all of the electricity to the island, National Grid spokeswoman Maura Mone said. National Grid was able to get one of the cables back up and running by late afternoon, restoring power to almost all of Nantucket.
At the height of the storm, with most people hunkering down as winds gusted over 80 mph, Greg Berman was out checking the beaches. A coastal processes specialist for Woods Hole Sea Grant and the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, Berman frequently advises Cape towns on erosion issues.
Photo Gallery: March blizzard on Cape
As he stopped in at beaches from Sandwich to Eastham, Berman didn’t see the kind of erosion the season’s prior nor’easters had caused. The predicted tide heights for this storm were two to three feet lower than previous storms, which made landfall during astronomical tides when the combined gravitational pull of the moon and sun produces extreme high and low tides.
That kept Liam’s at Nauset Beach and the beach administration building in East Orleans from the ocean’s grasp this time around.
“We would have needed a 5- to 6-foot (storm) surge (to produce the flooding and erosion of prior storms). Bigger than Sandy, bigger than the storm of ‘78,” Berman said. “Thankfully we didn’t.”
That’s not to say there was no erosion or flooding. Chatham’s Little Beach and Morris Island roads flooded again, and town landings on the Atlantic coast took another beating.
“There is some pretty significant erosion on Ballston Beach in Truro,” said Berman.
At Collins Landing in Eastham, the boathouse was underwater again, something that surprised Berman. The surge plus the tide was greater in Town Cove than he anticipated leading him to theorize that prior storms had flattened dunes on the barrier beaches, allowing more water to wash over the beach and flow into the cove, raising the tide higher than expected.
“This storm is not as bad, but the pathways are open,” Berman said.
At Chatham’s Cotchpinicut Road landing, waves rushed right past the pilings of a former boathouse that had been taken out by a storm a few years ago and bulled into the marsh, threatening properties once protected by a barrier beach.
The jury is still out on whether four nor’easters in two months, three in two weeks, is due to climate change or a favorable atmospheric alignment, but the inland reach of storm waves was helped by a warming ocean, Berman said. The surge from the January storm was just a few inches shy of the record set by the Blizzard of ’78, but the actual tide was higher by the four to five inches of sea level rise due to global warming and land subsidence. That was the difference between flooding in many spots and no impact, Berman said.
With certain schools being used as shelters, some administrators made an early decision to cancel classes on Wednesday.
“Taking into consideration that the shelter will likely be going into tomorrow, and the unlikely chance of full power being restored by tomorrow morning, school will be canceled for Sandwich tomorrow,” Superintendent Pamela Gould wrote in a Facebook post.
In addition to disruptions to travel, school and power, the storm also interrupted communications.
AT&T cellphone users reported spotty or no coverage, during the storm.
“As the storm continues, power outages and storm damage may be affecting service for some customers in parts of Cape Cod,” AT&T spokeswoman Kate MacKinnon wrote in an email. “Technicians are working to deploy additional generators and restore service as quickly and as safely as conditions allow.”
Centerville-Osterville-Marstons Mills fire Capt. Brian Morrison said that as people fire up their generators, they need to be careful.
The back of a house on Old Falmouth Road caught fire Tuesday morning because a generator was too close to it. Firefighters were able to extinguish the fire and get the smoke out, Morrison said. The family was able to stay, but generator users need to make sure the generators are far enough away from the home, he said.
"When you're running your generator don't run it in a confined space," he said.
Residents also need to make sure their carbon monoxide alarms work, he said. Morrison's department and Cotuit firefighters responded to three CO alarms in an hour because of the exhaust from generators.
With all the wires down on the roads, Eversource continued to ask that people stay away from them and report them to local authorities. All downed wires should be considered live, Ress said.
“You just can’t tell whether there is power coursing through it,” she said.
— Staff writer Doug Fraser contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Follow Ethan Genter on Twitter: @EthanGenterCCT