Hurricane Sandy, Framingham

Carried by The Scotsman

At the Cold War nuclear bunker serving as this state’s hurricane headquarters yesterday, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency predicted that a million businesses and households could lost power in the storm. An hour later I was one of them, after a giant pine tree crashed through the electricity cables and narrowly missed my sister-in-law’s home. A second one blocked the drive.

For anyone used to Scotland’s brand of horizontal rain, the weather in this part of New England yesterday morning, several hundred miles from Hurricane Sandy’s expected landfall, seemed at first no worse than a blustery heavy drizzle.

But with the looming threat of the so-called “Frankenstorm” people here were hunkering down, with schools and many shops closed, coastal areas braced for flooding, and wet roads mostly empty of drivers who at the weekend made sure to fill their tanks with fuel. The forcecast was for 75 mph wind gusts and heavy rain.

“The bunker” as its known is a blast-proof operations centre 40 feet below the ground in Framingham, on the outskirts of Boston. It was the first built under a 1960s programme launched by President John F Kennedy to keep the government going in a nuclear attack. It had accomodation for 300 people and angled entrance ramps designed to keep out radioactive fall-out.

The scene was something out of the Cold War yesterday, with National Guard officers in battle fatigues among about 60 people from fire and other emergency agencies, as well as utility companies, monitoring events in a situation room with large-screen trackers of the hurricane’s path behind them.

There had been as much hype swirling around Hurricane Sandy as storm-force winds. “Apparently the winds have actually been strong enough to move Donald Trump’s hair,” jokes local broadcaster Jon Keller, of WBZ TV, one of a string of local stations broadcasting briefings from the centre, as he watched reports from the New Jersey coast.

But with memories of the devastating hurricane that tore through Massachusetts in 1938, and of the political stakes for anyone who misjudges a weather disaster in election week, no one was taking it lightly. Last year a heavy snowstorm put out power to some areas of the state for a week or more, causing fury over the time it took to clear debris, and power outages were already being reported yesterday. From President Barack Obama, to his ally Massachusetts’ Democrat Governor Deval Patrick, to Republican Senator Scott Brown – locked in a neck-and-neck battle for his key Senate seat – politicians were keen to show they were keyed in and on the ball.

WIth forecasts here for a “high wind event”, and a coastal storm surge from the hurricane hitting at high tide, voluntary evacuation orders were in effect for low-lying shore-side towns. Public transport in Boston was shut down at 2pm yesterday. Flooding may be the worst since Hurricane Bob in 1981, it was said.

“The two major things are the entire coast, from New Hampshire to Rhode Island, concern about flooding, because of the winds blowing the water up,” said Peter Judge, press officer for MEMA. “The other thing, from the state-wide perspective, is the strength of the wind, to take out a lot of power lines. We could easily have a million customers, households and businesses not individuals, could be without power if this storm is as big as is seen.”

“Hopefully it won’t be a worst-case scenario, but I think it’s going to be a serious scenario, even here. This storm is like a thousand miles across. If it stayed as a hurricane it would probably have been better for us, because it tends to be more compact and it moves very quickly, 60-70 miles an hour. We always say in by breakfast, out by dinner, and then we start cleaning up. This is big, and slow.”

The entrance to the bunker has a table loaded with an ideal “hurricane disaster kit”. It runs from batteries and evaporated milk to vermicelli pasta and honey nut Cheerios.

Queues at petrol stations on the weekend had given way to mostly empty, leaf-strewn roads.

At Tilly’s, a family grocery store here open since the 1930s, people have been flocking to stock up over the weekend. “It’s sold probably 80 propane tanks,” he said, for cooking. “They are just buying everything. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a direct hit here. People just want to be prepared.”

His regular customers included Henry Grady, 78. He still remembers the tree that fell across his street in the ’38 hurricane. “We have pretty much done what we have to do for the next few days,” he said. “Got batteries, brought in lunches. If it stays in this category, it’s wind and rain.

“It just depends how you look at it, if you more laid back, or a real panic person. The thing is to be prepared.”