By Scott Malone, Laila Kearney and Ellen Wulfhorst
BOSTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. blizzard swept past New York City and struck hardest at some 4.5 million people around Boston, dropping nearly three feet of snow in areas and triggering high tides that breached a seawall and forced residents to flee their coastal homes.
The governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut lifted travel bans they had imposed a day earlier and New York City's subway system restarted after being closed for 10 hours, but officials urged people to stay off snow-covered roadways.
The snow was forecast to continue into early Wednesday morning in eastern New England, which could set a new snowfall record in Boston, where 20.8 inches (53 cm) of snow was already on the ground early afternoon, often piled higher by strong winds.
"There are drifts now of four, five and six feet in some places," Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker told reporters. Boston-area subways would remain closed for at least the rest of the day, Baker said.
Storm-driven coastal flooding added to the state's woes, with low-lying towns south of Boston seeing flood damage.
High tides breached a seawall in Marshfield, Massachusetts, about 30 miles (50 km) south of Boston, damaging 11 homes, several of which were condemned, police said. Waves were splashing over the damaged seawall by afternoon and local police urged residents of the area to evacuate before the next high tide, expected at 5 p.m. ET.
Denise Gorham, 57, said she spent the morning watching a heavy wooden shed filled with six window air conditioners float away on waters that surrounded the house after the breach.
"It's been horrible. I've been here 12 years and we've weathered every single storm. It was just like the ocean was on the street itself," said Gorham, a writer, who was trying to keep warm over her fireplace after the power went out.
The heaviest snowfall was recorded outside Boston, with 32.5 inches (83 cm) reported in Auburn, Massachusetts, and 30 inches (76.2 cm) reported in Framingham.
Authorities were also working to restore power at the resort island of Nantucket, off Massachusetts, where most homes and businesses had lost power early in the day, Baker said.
Some 45,900 customers across the storm-hit region were without power, according to local utilities, with the bulk of the outages on Massachusetts' Cape Cod and outlying islands.
Police said a teenager died late on Monday when he crashed into a lamppost on a street where he was snow-tubing in the New York City suburb of Suffolk County, on the east end of Long Island, which saw more than two feet of snow in places.
'THEY ALWAYS MESS UP'
New Yorkers were divided on whether officials had over-reacted in ordering dramatic shutdowns ahead of the storm. The city shut its subway system for about 10 hours, the first time in its history that it did so due to snow.
"The mayor was going based on the meteorologists. The meteorologists, they always mess up, it's not an exact science," said Vincent Pierce, 34, as he walked his bulldog on a snow-free Manhattan sidewalk.
Others were frustrated that officials had preemptively shut the subway and ordered cabs off the roads.
"This made it a little difficult to go to my job. I usually take a taxi, but no taxis today," said Greg Noble, 29, as he walked briskly to his maintenance job some 30 city blocks from his Manhattan home.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo defended the decisions, which had included a driving ban in New York City and its surrounding counties overnight.
"I would rather, if there is a lean one way or another, lean towards safety because I have seen the consequences the other way and it gets very frightening very quickly ... we have had people die in storms," Cuomo told reporters. "I would rather be in a situation where we say 'We got lucky.'"
The National Weather Service lifted its blizzard warning for the New York City area, but throughout the region offices were closed, schools were shut, some roads remained impassable, and thousands of flights were canceled or delayed.
A blizzard warning remained in effect for much of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and parts of Maine, where snow was expected to fall throughout the day at a rate as high as 2 to 3 inches (5 to 8 cm) an hour.
Boston could receive up to 25 inches (64 cm) of accumulation, approaching the record of 27.5 inches (69.85 cm) set in February 2003.
Stuck at home, Northeasterners spent their time on social media, filling Twitter and Facebook with photos of snow drifts covering the doors of their homes and what appeared to be a person in Boston dressed as the Yeti, a mythical abominable snowman, on hashtags including "#snowmaggeddon2015" and "#blizzardof2015."
More than 4,700 U.S. flights were canceled on Tuesday, according to FlightAware.com, with more than 80 percent of scheduled flights at airports in New York, Philadelphia and Boston affected.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered schools to re-open on Wednesday and Broadway's theaters planned to open their doors on Tuesday night as the city began to return to normal.
The New York Stock Exchange, owned by Intercontinental Exchange Inc, opened as usual. Nasdaq OMX Group and BATS Global Markets had normal operating hours on Tuesday.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Benkoe, James Dalgleish, Scott DiSavino, Sebastien Malo and Tiffany Wu in New York, Daniel Kelley in Philadelphia, Elizabeth Barber in Somerville, Massachusetts, Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey, Svea Herbst-Bayliss in Providence Rhode Island, Curtis Skinner in San Francisco and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Howard Goller and Bernard Orr)