FREEPORT, Maine – A powerful coastal storm packing rain, snow and sleet surprised New Englanders with its ferocity as wind gusts built to speeds topping 60 mph, knocking down trees and utility poles, leaving tens of thousands of people in the dark. At sea, swells topped out at more than 15 feet.
At the peak, more than 60,000 homes and businesses were in the dark Monday morning in Maine, where the Portland International Jetport recorded a gust of 63 mph. There were 15,000 outages in New Hampshire, where winds topped 60 mph at the Isles of Shoals. There were sporadic outages elsewhere.
The storm raked the region with driving rain, sleet and freezing rain, and powerful winds seemed to grab trees and effortlessly shake them. Dozens of schools closed for the day because of power outages and at least one traffic fatality was blamed on the weather.
In Freeport, Bill Fish was startled when he awoke Monday morning to find a 75-foot pine tree had snapped and fallen across some power lines, which crashed into a heap in the middle of the road. Somehow, he'd managed to sleep through the commotion when the wind knocked down the massive tree.
"It's good it went that way. That's all I can say," Fish said as utility crews restored power on his country road. "If it had come this way, it would have hit my house."
Central Maine Power Co. officials monitored the storm over the weekend, but it was more powerful than expected when it crossed into the state, said CMP spokeswoman Gail Rice.
Numerous trees and branches fell onto power lines, and more than 60 utility poles had been toppled as of Monday morning, she said. There was no significant snow but there was enough rain to cause flooding and close roads to traffic. The National Weather Service said the storm will continue through Tuesday.
By late Monday afternoon, about 31,000 homes and businesses in Maine and 1,500 in New Hampshire were still without power. CMP expected to restore electricity to more customers Monday night and to complete the job Tuesday.
The complex storm pattern involved two low-pressure systems that rotated off the coast from New Jersey to Maine resulting in heavy squalls and blustery conditions, said Butch Roberts, weather service meteorologist in Maine.
It was reaching its peak strength when it arrived on the Maine coast. "It was definitely a strong storm. It got progressively stronger and deeper as it approached the coast," he said.
In New Hampshire, Justin Towle, 29, of Claremont was killed Monday after his car struck a large tree that had been uprooted by high winds and fallen across Route 120 in Cornish, according to state police.
Early in the morning, the Coast Guard launched a helicopter, jet, three cutters and other vessels to search for a New Jersey-based fishing boat and its four-person crew after receiving an alert from the boat's emergency beacon off Massachusetts with 25- to 30-knot winds and 15-foot seas.
The boat was located later in the morning, and all aboard were safe. The fishing boat had lost generator power, making it difficult to communicate earlier, an official said.
Sudden icing conditions were blamed for a rash of overnight accidents in Massachusetts, including two that left police officers injured.
Authorities weren't sure if weather was a factor in a fatal crash on Interstate 495 in Raynham. A 57-year-old Brockton man died when his car went out of control at about 4:30 a.m., struck a guardrail and then was hit by a tractor-trailer.
The cleanup was in full swing Monday morning with utility crews out in force. Maine Gov. John Baldacci signed an emergency declaration to allow power crews from other states to come to Maine and to extend the number of hours crews can work in a stretch restoring power.
A scene in Yarmouth repeated itself across the region.
"It was blowing pretty good. It had to be 40- to 50-knot winds," said Steve Hunt as he used a bow saw to cut up a huge pine tree that fell. He estimated it was 80 to 90 feet tall and 3½ to 4 feet in diameter at its base.
Associated Press writer Bob Salsberg in Boston contributed to this story.