New England, eastern Canada hunker down as Hurricane Lee's high winds, rains, waves approach

Gov. Dan McKee (at podium) and other state officials, accompanied by a sign language interpreter, offer a briefing on the anticipated effects of Hurricane Lee, September 15, 2023. Photo by Steve Klamkin WPRO News

BAR HARBOR, Maine (AP) — New England harbors and fishing villages were being emptied of boats — and some were becoming ghost towns — as commercial fishermen and recreational boaters scrambled Friday to make final preparations for the arrival of Hurricane Lee, a storm threatening to bring tropical-storm-force winds across a swath of land and sea hundreds of miles wide.

Hundreds of out-of-state utility workers poured into Maine amid fears of widespread power outages because of a combination of heavy winds and rain-saturated soil in the nation’s most heavily wooded state.

Lee remained a hurricane with 80 mph winds at 2 p.m. EDT Friday as it headed to New England and eastern Canada with 20-foot ocean swells, strong winds and rain. Forecasters said there would be winds topping 40 mph across an area spanning more than 400 miles ahead of landfall Saturday afternoon.

On Friday, there was little else to be done but wait and worry, and make final preparations as Lee, by midafternoon, was spinning about 395 miles southeast of Nantucket, Massachusetts, and moving away from Bermuda.

On Long Island, Maine, off of Portland, commercial lobster fisherman Steve Train had just finished hauling 200 traps out of the water. Train, who is also a firefighter, was going to wait out the storm on the island in Casco Bay.

He was not concerned about staying on the island in the storm. “Not one bit,” he said.

In South Thomaston, lobsterman Dave Cousens, who lost fishing gear when Hurricane Bob came through in 1991, said lobstermen were busy moving their traps, which cost $100 to $170 apiece, out of harm’s way to try to avoid being damaged by the rough seas. Some of them were pulling their boats out of the water, as well.

While landfall was projected for nearby Nova Scotia, the Category 1 system was big enough to cause concerns over a wide area even if it weakens to a tropical storm. Parts of coastal Maine could see waves up to 15 feet high crashing down, causing erosion and damage, and the powerful gusts will cause power outages in a state where the ground is already saturated from rain, said Louise Fode, a National Weather Service meteorologist. Up to 4 inches of rain was forecast for eastern Maine.

In Canada, Ian Hubbard, a Meteorologist for Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Canadian Hurricane Centre, said Lee won’t be anywhere near the severity of the remnants of Hurricane Fiona, which washed houses into the ocean, knocked out power to most of two Canadian provinces and swept a woman into the sea a year ago.

But it was still a dangerous storm. Kyle Leavitt, director of the New Brunswick Emergency Management Organization, urged residents to stay home. “Nothing good can come from checking out the big waves and how strong the wind truly is,” Leavitt said.

On Friday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was convening the incident response group, which meets only to discuss events with major implications for Canada. Consisting of Cabinet ministers and senior officials, it was previously convened over events including the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and the record wildfire season this year.

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey joined Maine in declaring a state of emergency, and asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to issue a pre-disaster emergency declaration. She also activated up to 50 National Guard members to help with storm preparations, including operating highwater vehicles to respond to flooded areas.

The storm’s arrival was expected just days after heavy flooding and tornadoes in New England.

“As we’ve seen in recent weeks, severe weather is not to be taken lightly. Flooding, wind damage, downed trees, tree limbs — all these things create real hazards and problems for people,” Healey said.

East Hampton, New York, barred swimming — and, in at least some places, even walking — on beaches because of dangerous surf. Caution tape was strung up along the edge of the sand at the tony second-home community’s picturesque Main Beach, where waves already were roiling Friday afternoon, News12 Long Island video showed.

In Rhode Island, Gov. Dan McKee said crews were working Friday to secure the iconic 11-foot-tall “Independent Man” statue atop the State House dome. Workers wanted to safeguard the 500-pound statue against the storm’s wind and rain after a drone recently captured footage showing damage to the base.

Destructive hurricanes are relatively rare this far to the north, in New England and Atlantic Canada. The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 brought gusts as high as 186 mph and sustained winds of 121 mph at Massachusetts’ Blue Hill Observatory. But there have been no storms packing that much power in recent years.

The last storm to make landfall in New England as a hurricane was Bob, which tore across Cape Cod and charged northward toward Maine, losing steam and becoming a tropical storm, the National Weather Service said. The region learned the hard way with Hurricane Irene in 2011 that damage isn’t always confined to the coast. Downgraded to a tropical storm, Irene still caused more than $800 million in damage in Vermont.

For this storm, part of Maine was under a hurricane watch for the first time since 2008, for Hurricane Kyle, which skirted eastern Maine. The last hurricane to make landfall in Maine was Hurricane Gerda, which hit Eastport in 1969.