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Weakening storm Lee bears down on New England and Canada with still-dangerous winds, heavy rains

A warning sign is displayed on Park Loop Rd. along shoreline closure at Acadia National Park in Maine on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. Severe conditions were predicted across parts of Massachusetts and Maine, and hurricane conditions could hit the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, where the storm, Lee, downgraded early Saturday from hurricane to post-tropical cyclone, was expected to make landfall later in the day.(AP Photo/Robert Bumsted)

BAR HARBOR, Maine (AP) — Storm Lee toppled trees and cut power to tens of thousands Saturday as it began lashing New England and eastern Canada, threatening hurricane-force winds, dangerous surf and torrential rains as its center spun closer.

Severe conditions were predicted across parts of Massachusetts and Maine, and hurricane conditions could hit the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

The storm, still dangerous after being downgraded from hurricane to post-tropical cyclone, was expected to make landfall near or just east of the U.S.-Canada border Saturday afternoon, then turn to the northeast and move across Atlantic Canada on Saturday night and Sunday.

In Maine, the nation’s most heavily forested state, the ground was saturated and trees were already weakened by heavy summer rains. There were reports of trees down in eastern Maine, according to Todd Foisy, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

“We have a long way to go, and we’re already seeing downed trees and power outages,” Foisy said Saturday.

The storm’s center was just off the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia, about 105 miles (170 kilometers) southeast of Eastport, Maine, and about 150 miles (240 kilometers) southwest of Halifax, Nova, Scotia, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said at 11 a.m. EDT Saturday. It had maximum sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph), just over hurricane strength, which is 74 mph (119 kph), and was moving north at a fast clip of near 22 mph (35 kph).

Federal aid is headed to Massachusetts after President Joe Biden declared an emergency Saturday.

A tropical storm warning stretched from the New Hampshire-Maine border through Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island to northern New Brunswick. A hurricane watch was in effect for New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Utilities reported nearly 200,000 customers without power from Maine to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia’s largest airport, Halifax Stanfield International, had no incoming or outgoing flights scheduled Saturday.

Cruise ships found refuge at berths in Portland, while lobstermen in Bar Harbor and elsewhere pulled their costly traps from the water and hauled their boats inland, leaving some harbors looking like ghost towns on Friday.

Two lobstermen — one of them Billy Bob Faulkingham, House Republican leader of the Maine Legislature — survived after their boat overturned while hauling traps Friday ahead of the storm, officials said.

The boat’s emergency locator beacon alerted authorities, and the two fishermen clung to the hull of the overturned boat until help arrived, said Winter Harbor Police Chief Danny Mitchell. The 42-foot boat sank.

“They’re very lucky to be alive,” he said.

Lee lashed the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Bahamas and Bermuda before turning northward, and heavy swells were likely to cause “life-threatening surf and rip current conditions” in the U.S. and Canada, according to the hurricane center.

Parts of coastal Maine could see waves up to 15 feet (4.5 meters) high crashing down, causing erosion and damage, and the strong gusts will cause power outages, said Louise Fode, a National Weather Service meteorologist. As much as 5 inches (12 centimeters) of rain was forecast for eastern Maine, where a flash flood watch was in effect.

But even as they prepared, New Englanders seemed largely unconcerned. In Maine, where people are accustomed to damaging winter nor’easters, some brushed aside the coming Lee as something akin to those storms, only without the snow.

“There’s going to be huge white rollers coming in on top of 50- to 60-mph winds. It’ll be quite entertaining,” Bar Harbor lobsterman Bruce Young said Friday. Still, he had his boat moved to the local airport, saying it’s better to be safe than sorry.

On Long Island, commercial lobsterman Steve Train finished hauling 200 traps out of the water on Friday. 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 there in the storm. “Not one bit,” he said.

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

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

Destructive hurricanes are relatively rare this far to the north. The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 brought gusts as high as 186 mph (300 kph) and sustained winds of 121 mph (195 kph) at Massachusetts’ Blue Hill Observatory. But there have been no storms that powerful in recent years.

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.

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