The Great Blizzard of 1978, 25 years later

Boston Globe front page from www.blizzardof78.org
Boston Globe front page from www.blizzardof78.org

by Robert Gillis
published in the Foxboro Reporter 2/2003 and the Boston City Paper 2/2013.

There are images that stay with you. Throughout your life, some remain indelible. Certain events that you know are unique even as you live through them: You know that these are the events you’ll never forget. Despite the years, the images remain; every detail still clear.

“Major blizzard. Hurricane force.” Twenty-five years after the storm of the century, twenty-five years after digging out of the worst blizzard the state had ever seen (and the one all future storms would be measured by), no superlative, no description can accurately describe what happened to Massachusetts on the afternoon of Monday, February 6, 1978, and during the amazing week afterward.

Only sleet and rain were falling as I left school that day, but a big storm had been forecast. Dad and I were fixing a pipe at Nana’s house on Trull Street, and I took a break around 5 and looked outside.

The sight that greeted me was one I’ll never forget. Incredibly fierce snow was falling. The streets were deserted, and the only sound was the hissing of the strong winds blowing the snow in every direction. It was a white-out.

This storm was already massive, and by 5:30, schools were already canceling classes — that was unheard of. (It would be three weeks before we’d return to school.)

We watched channel 7’s meteorologist Harvey Leonard — who had a lot more hair back then — explaining that a combination of several storms, unusually high tides and just the right mix of meteorological conditions merged and created a storm that no one around here had seen before. This was going to be one for the record books.

“More snow to come. If you don’t have to go out, don’t.” The snow was already piling up outside when Dad discovered that Nana was out of oil — and the house was starting to get cold. He made phone calls to the oil company, and we started trying to clear the snow. After a half hour of heroic effort, we gave up and came back inside — the snow was simply falling too fast.

The phone rang; it was Nana’s crazy neighbor, Franny. “There’s a dead man in your yard!” she was screaming.

My father sighed heavily, as Franny often called to tell Nana that people were trying to break into the house or walking through the yard. Dad told Franny we’d investigate the homicide, and we once more braved the storm.

To our surprise, there really was someone sprawled in the snow, but he wasn’t dead — just drunk. Dressed in a soaked yellow slicker, our oil man looked like the Michelin Man as he tried to right himself.

He explained that the blizzard was extremely bad, and the streets were impassable. He and his co-workers had already started toasting the storm with a drink or five when he got our call, and he kindly walked the two miles to Nana’s with 20 gallons of oil — enough to heat the house until the truck could get there the next day.

“The weather outside … treacherous, to say the least,” an announcer on WJIB radio said.

The snow fell non-stop for over 24 hours, adding to the immense snow banks still left over from another huge blizzard just weeks before. Within a day, President Carter declared Boston and much of the surrounding cities and towns disaster areas. Rhode Island measured 40 inches of snow. All roads in Connecticut were closed. Massachusetts coastal areas were flooded.

In the aftermath, everything just stopped. Imagine an entire state being cut off from the outside world. While we often joke about the way people around here hoard milk, bread and water whenever snow is forecast, this is why that practice started. In the aftermath of the blizzard of ‘78, no one could drive anywhere. That meant no deliveries of food, milk, newspapers … Well, no deliveries of anything. Supermarkets and stores ran out of food. Milk, bread and other items were rationed.

With travel absolutely impossible (most roads weren’t plowed anyway), we relied on the TV to give us news of the outside world. I can never forget the image of then-Governor Michael Dukakis in his sweater, addressing the people. A state of emergency is in effect, he told us. The National Guard has been called in. If you attempt to drive your car you will be arrested.

I’ll never forget the images being broadcast. We saw nature’s incredible fury unleashed, and all of our human technology and progress meant nothing. Miles and miles of snow-covered abandoned cars on route 128. People arguing with police officers, refusing to abandon their cars. Images of people being evacuated by rescue crews in rubber rafts from flooded homes, trying to gather a few possessions or a beloved pet to safety. Over two dozen people dead.

Day after day of pictures of folks shoveling snow. Coastal houses destroyed. Boats ripped from their moors and tossed into the sea. Docks and boardwalks demolished. Incredibly high waves crashing over sea walls. Houses actually moved by the storm. Long lists of emergency phone numbers. Locations of shelters. Lengthy lists of towns without power. Towns under water. Route 128 closed. Logan Airport closed. MBTA busses and trains not running. No lottery numbers drawn. And I remember sportscaster Don Gillis severely criticizing the Beanpot Game being held as scheduled — resulting in 13,000 people being stranded at Boston Garden.

The next day, I remember crawling over the fence and “swimming” on top of the four foot high drifts to get into Nana’s house. Clearing her short walkway took us hours. With the snow so high, we built incredible snow forts.

Even Saint Kevin’s church needed to reschedule giving out ashes on Ash Wednesday until the following Sunday, because most people couldn’t make it to church!

And for five or so hours that Ash Wednesday, much of Dorchester lost power and we ate by candlelight.

As exciting as all of this was, for many of us who lived through that time, the most vivid memory of the blizzard of ’78 was the climate of friendship that descended upon us. With no way to get to school or work, we all got a vacation.

People walked. They walked everywhere, greeting neighbors (some they’d never met) and sharing the common bond of being stranded by an unprecedented storm.

I saw neighbors helping each other shovel snow. I watched people get around through Uphams Corner on skis and snowmobiles. I remember walking home from the store with Dad and seeing a bunch of guys singing Christmas carols, digging out their cars.

Despite the hardship, the power outages, the inconveniences, people were, for the most part, nice to each other. With our everyday life put on hold, I remember that feeling of community, of sharing a unique experience with people I didn’t even know. Through all of it, we were one people coping as best we could with the ultimate snowstorm.

History books and newspapers record the facts of that storm: The amount of snowfall in 24 hours, (27.1 inches), the hurricane force winds, impassable roads, pictures of the flooded and damaged areas, and terrible devastation.

But for many of us, despite the awe of witnessing the greatest snowstorm of the century, we will always remember the blizzard of ’78 as an unprecedented time of community and friendship — when people’s lives were put on hold, and we all took the time to get to know each other. Before or since, there has never been a time like that.

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