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.

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