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Environment, History, Spotlight

The Nor’easter from Hell: the great blizzard of 1978.

It happens to be snowing where I am as I write this. Perhaps it’s snowing where you are too–much of the U.S. is supposed to get snow this weekend. But, as annoying and even temporarily catastrophic as the white stuff may be, few people anywhere will experience anything like the winter storm that walloped New England and the U.S. Northeast on this day 36 years ago. In places like Boston, Cape Cod and Woonsocket, Rhode Island, old timers still talk about the Great Blizzard of 1978 like it was some sort of apocalypse. For the most part they’re right. It was.

The storm began as a cyclone off the coast of South Carolina the previous day, Sunday, February 5. Weather forecasters predicted there would be heavy snow during the night and the early hours of Monday. Unfortunately, as it turned out, the snow was a little late. Not much had fallen by morning rush hour in New England on February 6, so many people shrugged off the prediction and went to work as always. Then it began dumping. With schools and businesses open, everybody was now concerned with getting home before conditions got too bad.

By afternoon it was “too bad.” Snow in some places, especially Rhode Island, was falling at a rate of two inches an hour. Highways ground to a halt, as did commuter trains. Some people caught on the roads suffocated in their cars because the snowdrifts blocked their vehicles’ tailpipes. Others abandoned their cars and hiked out through waist-deep drifts, leaving their cars to be buried under tons of snow. At Boston Garden, fans who came out for a college hockey game found themselves stranded in the arena when the game was over. Some stayed, trapped indoors, for several days, camping in their seats and doing their best to cope with overloaded bathrooms. A similar situation occurred during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 on a much vaster and more tragic scale.

blizzard of 78 one

Boston was crippled by the huge snowfall of February 6-7, 1978. This is a view of South Boston. Photo courtesy of blizzardof78.org.

As of nightfall on February 6, almost all of New England, plus Long Island and New York City, was at a standstill. Mail delivery was interrupted for the first time in 40 years. The New York City schools closed, an exceedingly rare occurrence (most students and employees can get to New York schools via subways). Because the storm happened during a new moon, tides were abnormally high, washing out thousands of houses in Massachusetts and along Long Island. Even in Northeastern cities used to snow, infrastructure couldn’t cope. Snowplows couldn’t keep up. Ambulances and basic service vehicles couldn’t move. In Boston some people were taken to hospitals by snowmobile. People who were trapped at work on Monday and couldn’t get home ended up spending days in their offices, waiting for things to return to normal.

Of course there were casualties of the Blizzard of ’78. In addition to those who died of exposure–often the poor or homeless who didn’t get to shelter in time–people were killed by collapsing power lines, and there was more than one death in Rhode Island caused by heart attack while shoveling snow. A 10-year-old boy who went missing during the storm in Uxbridge, Massachusetts wasn’t found until three weeks later; he was buried under snow just feet from his front door. All told, 54 people died in the storm or somehow related to it. Elected officials who were in office at the time, including future Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, then Governor of Massachusetts, remembered it as one of the largest crises they ever handled in their careers.

In some ways, we are better prepared for such storms 35+ years later, and in some ways we’re not. Weather forecasting has arguably gotten better, so the false prediction that ended up trapping many people in their offices in 1978 might be avoided today. Many more vehicles have four wheel drive today than did in 1978. But, as recent events particularly in this brutal winter of 2013-14 have proven, these advantages are pretty negligible when a large storm hits. We remain at the mercy of the environment, much as humans always have.

8 Comments

  1. My favourite thing about blizzards is the spike in the birthrate nine months later. You wouldn’t believe it if it wasn’t absolutely true! But what else can you do, trapped in doors.

  2. Robin Ridley

    God, that top photo looks like my street in Buffalo. A house down the street caught fire, and although the entire street was out, trying to find and dig out the fire hydrants, we couldn’t find them in time to do any good. The house burned to the ground. In one spot, the neighbors were just about 6 inches to the left of the hydrant.

    In April of that year, there was a news story. A teen age boy went missing during the storm, and was not found. It was assumed that he was in a snow drift somewhere, and would be found eventually. Well, he was found. In the crawlspace of a friends home. Missing boy (MB) went to his friend’s house the first day of the storm. Parents were at work, and the 2 kids (I think they were about 13 – 14) started messing around with some guns in the house. They were target shooting in the basement, and MB darted forward to adjust the target just when Friend took aim. You guessed it: MB was shot and killed. Friend panicked, and in the honored tradition of immature teens everywhere, he decided that the best thing to do was hide the body in the crawlspace.

    As winter turned to spring, the house began to smell, and the parents spoke of getting an exterminator out to look under the house: dead cat? some kind of vermin? Friend is buying Air Wicks with his allowance and shoving them in with the body.

    They did find the body, and the whole horrible story came out.

    I often wonder just what the follow up was. I have tried researching but have never run across anything pertaining to it. I do think about Friend, and his futile effort to cover up a nightmare.

    • Wow. That’s a pretty harrowing story. I’m sure there’s got to be some record of it somewhere. I have a list of things to research in newspaper archives when I have time (which isn’t much), and I may add this to the list. Bizarre.

  3. My sister was born in upstate NY Feb. 4, 1978…

  4. Ray Creamer

    I remember the storm very good, I was just 15 years old. Highway was clogged up for 2 weeks. We all helped each other dig out. Food and medicine were hard to Get. The police used snowmobiles in the city. Was not too bad for my family. Now I live in Texas.

  5. We’ve had some pretty big blizzards — in Feb 2015, a couple of HUGE ones — but none did the kind of damage that the ’78 storm did. It wasn’t just the amount of snow. It was the speed at which it fell, the hurricane level winds, the extreme cold (rarely is it that cold when it snows) — and the high tide combined with the winds. People don’t talk about the devastation along the coast, but it was extensive. No one ignore blizzard warnings anymore. That was a lesson painfully well-learned. On the other hand, we haven’t had a storm of that intensity since. More snow, yes. The one on the same day in 2015 (or was it 2014? I’d have to look in my picture files to know for sure) was a fort deeper, as deep as 38 inches in this area which is a LOT OF SNOW, my friend. A LOT of snow and it wasn’t the only storm that month or even that week … but it didn’t have the wind or the tides … and it wasn’t quite so coastal.

    But this IS New England. Blizzards happen and will happen again. I’m just glad Garry doesn’t have to be out there with a microphone trying to smile while his face freezes.

  6. I should mention, if you’re interested, that it would appear that both the Globe and the Herald have released a lot of pictures of ’78 and there are websites with nothing but news photos from ’78.

  7. Garry Armstrong

    Good piece, Sean!! Seems like a lifetime ago…hey, it was!!

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