A powerful nor’easter buffeted Maine and much of the Northeast with blizzard conditions Tuesday, raking the region with gusting winds and blowing snow that sent cars off roads and left thousands of homes and businesses without power.

The extreme conditions forced the Maine Department of Transportation to pull all of its plow truck drivers off Interstate 295 between Freeport and Bowdoinham between 6:15 and 7:15 p.m. after a state snowplow went off I-295 between Freeport and Brunswick, said spokesman Ted Talbot.

“It was a complete whiteout with zero visibility,” he said.

Several cars in the same stretch of I-295 were forced to pull over.

Maine State Police tweeted around 7:30 p.m. that plow drivers were having a difficult time keeping up with snow removal on I-295 between Freeport and Topsham and urged drivers to avoid the highway.

“That area should be avoided, if possible,” state police tweeted.

No one was stranded or injured and traffic was flowing normally as of 9 p.m.

National Weather Service meteorologist Margaret Curtis in Gray said snow was falling across the state at the rate of 2 to 3 inches an hour Tuesday afternoon and evening, an unusually intense rate. Wind gusts were unusually powerful as well, with a gust of 45 mph reported at the Portland International Jetport at 4 p.m. A wind gust of 58 mph was reported in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

“It’s official. Yes. Portland is in the throes of a blizzard,” Curtis said late Tuesday afternoon.

The weather service said 15 inches of snow fell at the jetport. Other areas got slammed as well, with Gorham reporting 17.5 inches, Bridgton 16.3 inches, Westbrook 13.5 inches, Brunswick 11 inches, Gray 15 inches, Auburn 13 inches, Kennebunk 14.8 inches, Saco 13 inches, Hollis 14.8 inches, Limington 12.5 inches, Otisfield 9 inches and Phippsburg 10 inches.

Brown said those totals were not likely to change significantly, although strong wind gusts, which were blowing snow everywhere, might make it seem like it was snowing harder than it really was.

Casco Bay Lines shut down its evening service to Peaks Island on Tuesday because of high winds and rough seas. Staff Photographer Ben McCanna rode on the next-to-last boat of the day and recorded a somewhat harrowing passage, including thoughts from Senior Capt. Mike Bryand on the Machigonne II.

As the storm gained intensity during the afternoon, reports of power outages began to stream into the Central Maine Power Co. operations center.

Shortly before midnight, CMP was reporting just over 29,000 customers without power at 7:30 a.m., down slightly from the 30,658 customers without power late Tuesday night. More than 25,000 of those outages are in southern coastal York County. The town of York alone had 7,319 outages, and neighboring Kittery had 5,539 – most of the town’s 6,264 CMP customers.

Emera Maine, which serves northern and eastern Maine communities, said more than 8,500 customers lost power, with Hancock County and Washington County suffering the most outages.

TRAVEL EXTREMELY DIFFICULT

The weather service defines a blizzard as a severe winter storm that limits visibility to less than a quarter mile, produces falling or blowing snow, generates sustained wind speeds or gusts of 35 mph or higher, and lasts for at least three consecutive hours.

The severity of Tuesday’s storm prompted the weather service to issue a special weather statement on its website.”Travel is strongly discouraged,” the weather service said in its warning to the public. “Snow-covered roads and very low visibility combined with strong winds will make travel nearly impossible.”

Curtis said the weather service also is concerned about coastal flooding. High tide was to occur around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday in Portland. A coastal flood advisory was in effect from midnight until 3 a.m. Wednesday.

James Brown, another weather service meteorologist, said the snow was starting to wind down around 8 p.m. in Portland and was expected to end by 1 a.m.

However, the storm certainly left its mark.

The weather service posted road visibility reports on its Facebook page, and they were daunting. Visibility in Portland, Augusta and Waterville was all less than a quarter-mile during the height of the storm Tuesday afternoon and evening.

Brown said snowfall totals at the Portland jetport have now reached 90 inches for the 2016-17 winter season. The annual average snowfall for March 14 is 53.2 inches, Brown said.

The top five March snowstorms in Portland, before Tuesday. Courtesy of WCSH

Travel was brought to a near standstill in the Northeast, with more than 5,000 flights canceled and train and bus service suspended from Washington, D.C., to Maine. States of emergency were declared in New York, New Jersey and Maryland.

All departures for the day from the Portland jetport were canceled. All flights scheduled to arrive before 11:30 p.m. also were canceled. Amtrak canceled trains 688 and 689 that were scheduled to run Tuesday evening. Greyhound suspended all bus service in Maine on Tuesday.

In the Portland area, Metro suspended bus service at noon and closed its offices in Portland. Bus service is expected to resume Wednesday.

“We feel it’s necessary to suspend service to protect the safety of the public and employees as well as encourage residents to remain at home,” said Denise Beck, a Metro spokeswoman.

Greg Jordan, general manager of Metro, said in an email that the weather service’s calling of a blizzard warning was a factor in Metro’s decision to shut down bus service early. Because the weather forecast indicated the storm was moving to the Portland area earlier than was previously anticipated and was getting stronger, Metro decided to shut down service early. During the Feb. 12-13 storm, Metro shut down for the day because the weather service called for blizzard conditions.

The speed limit was reduced to 45 mph for the entire length of the Maine Turnpike, and over-limit vehicles were prohibited.

In Cape Elizabeth, the Public Works Department was fully staffed and crews began to head out to treat the roads by 8 a.m.

Department Director Robert C. Malley said the town’s 12 pieces of snow-removal equipment – road plows, front-end loaders and sidewalk plows – were in good shape and ready to go. Malley said the four weeks since the last major storm gave them plenty of time to make any needed repairs.

Because schools and many businesses in town were closed, traffic was light..

SCHOOLS AND BUSINESSES CLOSED

In Portland, some businesses were open in the morning but planned to close early.

Few people were on the streets as the snow arrived, but one woman took advantage of the quiet downtown to meditate in Monument Square.

Snowflakes collected on Amy Zeng’s stocking feet and on top of her hood as she sat quietly. A few passers-by rushing to escape the cold stared at the woman as she sat silent and seemingly not noticing the cold and wind. Zeng said she was practicing Falun Dafa, a form of exercise and meditation.

“In meditation, in a very tranquil status, I don’t feel cold,” Zeng said. “I forget the cold.”

Zeng, 41, is originally from China, where the practice of Falun Dafa originated. She moved to Maine in 2006 when her husband got a job here.

No matter the weather, Zeng said she practices outside every day near her home in Scarborough and other locations. She stands for one hour and sits for another hour.

“Practicing gives you energy,” she said, before closing her eyes to meditate once more.

Cumberland County government offices and courthouses were closed Tuesday. All York County courthouses also closed. All legislative public hearings and work sessions scheduled for the afternoon in Augusta were canceled. Schools, child care centers and libraries across the region also closed.

Parking bans were announced in many towns, including Portland, Brunswick, Westbrook, Kittery, Old Orchard Beach, Freeport, Falmouth, Kennebunkport, Biddeford, Windham, Yarmouth and Gorham.

Staff Writers Edward D. Murphy and Megan Doyle contributed to this report.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]