Visible light satellite photo taken on day two of the Northeast Blizzard of 1978
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the worst snowstorm I’ve ever experienced, the Great Northeast Blizzard of 1978, which is the likely origin of those odd runs on bread and milk that now occur in so many places – most prominently east of the Mississippi – before snowstorms. After this storm, many people in the worst affected areas couldn’t go out for days and genuinely did run out of such things. Where I lived, not far north of Boston, we got 30″ of snow, with eight- and nine-foot drifts due to the near-hurricane force winds that raged during the thirty-two hour storm. Those winds were hurricane force twenty miles away at the coast. My chief memory of the storm as it was happening is those fiercely howling winds driving the heavy snow mostly sideways for hours and hours on end. There was no thought of going outside – it was just too dangerous.
The storm happened on Monday and Tuesday of that week, and it was Friday before we could get to a grocery store. Quite different from the similar snow depth storm here in 2015.
February 1978: Southwest of Boston, Massachusetts, abandoned vehicles litter Route 128, the Boston inner ring highway, near Dedham. It was a week before all 3,500 vehicles there were cleared by the National Guard and U.S. Army.
February 1978: Abandoned vehicles on Route 9 west of Boston – just a mile or so from my current office
To guarantee unimpeded rescues and cleanup, then-Governor Michael Dukakis declared a travel ban in Massachusetts after the storm that extended to three days, so there was no point struggling to get to the nearest grocery a mile away because they’d have nothing in stock – nothing of use, anyway. Once the ban was lifted, our relatively minor street was still largely impassable, so I walked to the store to get some staples – with my sled as carry-all as I recall – and I think we had indeed run out of bread and milk, but still had some eggs.
I think it’s memories of this storm or stories from older relatives that still fuel the “must get French toast ingredients” urge that hits a lot of people before any middling to major snowstorm ’round these parts – and, strangely I think, many other places that have never experienced a regional shutdown lasting several days and almost certainly never will.
Here’s the best overview of the storm and its aftermath I found online, from WGBH Boston:
WBZ-TV aired a special last week, shown below. It was all right, but they buried the lede entirely – suffocated it, really. As the WGBH report mentions quite early on, most forecasts the morning the blizzard started called for about 6″ of snow total. While that sort of forecast would preemptively shut down a place like Washington DC, most people in New England would still go to work, and so they did. No one was prepared for what happened. By the time the monstrosity started showing its true self, snowplows couldn’t keep up with the stupendous rate of snowfall and it was too late for many to try to get home. A lot of those who attempted it were stranded and had to await rescue or abandon their cars and seek shelter.
At the time, there was basically one computer model available, but most meteorologists viewed it askance because it was new and its prediction seemed over the top. Not all of them thought it was dubious, though:
“Back in 1978, we did not have the accuracy of the computer models that we have today. And in 1978 there was a brand new computer model that came out and it was predicting the storm to be pretty much the magnitude it turned out to be. But because the computer model was brand new, people did not have confidence in it. And so there was some question whether or not people wanted to buy into the kind of product that it was delivering. To me it looked very reasonable. I took my little bag of clothes and I moved into Western Connecticut State College weather lab and I said, ‘I’m going to be here for a few days and there’s no question about that. It’s in the logbook on that day: ‘a granddaddy of a snowstorm is coming our way.’”
– Dr. Mel Goldstein
Houses tossed onto the beach like shoe boxes in Scituate, Massachusetts
The National Weather Service office at Taunton, Massachusetts prepared a slideshow some years ago with lots of good photos and graphics explaining how the storm evolved. Click on the image to view the PDF:
NOAA’s report on the blizzard (click to download or open the PDF):
This edition of The Boston Globe never reached its readers – they literally stopped the presses and abandoned the print run. There was no way to distribute it.
I had been scheduled to fly out to Kansas City, Missouri on 7 February to begin my first full-time job, but the snow was still coming down hard at that point and my move was delayed by two weeks. A few months after I moved into the Walnut Tower apartments in downtown Kansas City, wild weather of a different kind: Late afternoon on a Saturday or Sunday, I heard loud sirens that sounded like air raid sirens, but, being 18 years old and a Midwest newcomer, I didn’t know until the next day that what I heard was a tornado warning for the downtown area. I had an inkling, though, because I watched out my 11th floor window for about 90 minutes as, in ones and twos, ten or twelve funnels serpentined off the bottom of the filthy yellow mammatus cloud deck and twisted back up, never getting closer than about 1,500 feet off the ground.
“It was kind of nice to rule by decree because the legislature couldn’t get into the State House. So it was just me, you know.”
– Massachusetts Governor Dukakis