Paulina Puig woke up at 1 a.m. Friday with her ranch house in Kensington, Md., behaving strangely. “I could feel it moving,” she said. “The wind was just incredible.”
That was enough for Puig, who woke her family and herded them to the basement, but not before a loud crack and low rumble stopped them. The relentless gale had shoved a giant tree into their next-door neighbor’s bedroom, crushing the ceiling and pinning a 100-year-old woman to her bed.
“If she had been sleeping on the other side of the bed, she would have been killed,” said Puig’s husband, Alvaro. They had watched rescuers carry the woman out with minor injuries and then retreated to the basement for the day as the storm continued its rampage up the East Coast.
The fierce late-winter nor’easter dropped trees, severed power lines and wreaked havoc from Virginia to New England, resulting in multiple deaths and forcing the evacuation of thousands of households threatened by coastal flooding. Nearly 2 million lost power. Parts of downtown Boston were inundated by midday, with reports of at least 50 rescues from parts of neighboring Quincy, and telephone poles down on some streets. Some 80 million people were expected to be affected before it was over, according to weather forecasters.
In the Washington area, most school systems and the federal government closed. Airports reported hundreds of canceled flights, and Amtrak suspended service along its core Northeast Corridor line until Saturday. Almost 500,000 customers had lost power by midday. Air Force One, carrying President Trump to the funeral of the Rev. Billy Graham in Charlotte, was forced to take off from Dulles International Airport rather than Joint Base Andrews because of its more favorable runway orientation in unforgiving conditions.
Gusts reached 60 to 70 mph, on the edge of hurricane speed. A 71 mph gust forced air traffic controllers from the tower at Dulles for 45 minutes at lunchtime. In between, sustained winds of tropical-storm force kept workers off scaffolding at Washington National Cathedral, and it later broke free. Streets were littered with newspaper boxes, trash cans and yard furniture.
The governors of Maryland and Virginia declared states of emergency to facilitate bringing aid to affected jurisdictions, and in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, governors activated the National Guard.
The wind flipped a tractor-trailer trying to cross the Tydings Bridge north of Baltimore, closing Interstate 95 in both directions. Officials restricted traffic on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge during peak winds, and a stretch of I-95 South in Prince William County was closed briefly because officials feared that the towering Potomac Mills sign would topple. Wind damage also forced 300 residents to evacuate an apartment complex in the Suitland area of Prince George’s County.
In Baltimore County, a 77-year-old woman was killed in her yard by a falling tree branch. A driver in Northwest Washington was critically injured when a tree toppled onto his sedan. A tree fell onto a truck in James City County, Va., fatally injuring a passenger, said Steve Rubino, deputy chief of the county police.
The winds were the fiercest here since the 2012 derecho ripped down trees and cut power to more than 1 million residents. With recent rains having soaked the soil, officials warned that trees would be vulnerable to Friday’s blast — and they were.
For Puig, high winds are one of the most unnerving weather extremities. She was in labor with her daughter Isabelle during Hurricane Isabel in 2003; a year later, they endured Hurricane Alex in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. She saw a neighbor’s house get crushed by a tree during the derecho.
“With a flood, you can go to high ground, and with an earthquake, you can go into the basement,” she said inside her house Friday, flinching at each howl of air. Her daughters waited for permission to enter the kitchen — with its windows looking out on churning branches — for a quick lunch before scampering back to the basement for more ping-pong and Nerf soccer. “But with wind, it’s hard to know where to go to be safe. It’s just total chance.”
Outside, the roiling air played effortlessly with items that usually have no trouble remaining earthbound. Cherry Avenue in Takoma Park was briefly impassible because of scattered branches and a trio of recycling bins. A utility worker chased a triangular detour sign along Kensington Parkway like a stringless kite. On Georgia Avenue, someone’s “Spring Festival” banner had turned into a spinnaker sail atop a streetlight. A moment later, it was gone, maybe to be of use at a spring festival in New Jersey.
Forecasters said conditions, including full-moon tides that contribute to massive storm surges, were right for the nor’easter to become one of the most destructive in decades for some along the East Coast. The National Weather Service called it a life-or-death situation.
Workers tried to restring downed power lines. But wind grounded some bucket trucks and often kept people from poles.
“Just as quickly as our crews are restoring power, we’re seeing additional outages because the winds aren’t dying down,” said Le-Ha Anderson, a spokeswoman for Dominion Energy. Friday night the utility reported 120,000 customers out in Fairfax County alone.
More than 2,300 flights had been canceled in the United States by midday Friday, and some of those that managed to take off were in for rough flying. The turbulence that shook one plane as it landed at Dulles was sickening.
“Pretty much everyone on the plane threw up,” read an aircraft data report compiled by the Federal Aviation Weather Center. “Pilots were on the verge of throwing up.”
The winds sparked mayhem that kept local police departments hopping all day.
Prince George’s County police had responded to more than 600 calls by midday, including a collapsed wall that displaced about 100 residents of a three-story apartment building.
In Southeast Washington, gusting winds pushed flames from a kitchen fire into the hallway of an apartment complex; eight people — including an infant — were rescued from the third floor.
Montgomery County workers said they answered calls for about 75 downed wires and two-dozen toppled trees from midnight Friday until midday. In one incident, live wires fell onto a car at Beach Drive and Knowles Avenue in Kensington, causing the car to burn. One person suffered a minor injury.
Fairfax County police said an officer was injured when a falling tree hit him as he was helping in a separate weather-related incident. He was taken to a hospital, and his injuries were not life-threatening, officials said in a Twitter message.
The Puigs’ Kensington neighbor, centenarian Alice Zwerdling, needed six stitches in her scalp but was out of the hospital and recovering comfortably by Friday evening, according her son, David Zwerdling. Workers were already dismembering the tree, which had been a fixture in the yard for decades, he said.
“It was full grown and big when they moved in 49 years ago,” he said. “It was probably at least 100 years old, like my mother.”
Lori Aratani, Luz Lazo, Jason Samenow, Justin Wm. Moyer, Linh Bui, Clarence Williams and Martin Weil contributed to this report.