...in 1978, the storm of the century paralyzed the entire state of Massachusetts. The Blizzard of '78 dropped between two and four feet of snow on the Bay State in the space of 32 hours. Ferocious winds created drifts as high as 15 feet. Along the coast, flood tides forced 10,000 people into emergency shelters. Inland, over 3,000 cars and 500 trucks were immobilized along an eight-mile stretch of Route 128. By the time it subsided, the storm had taken 29 Massachusetts lives, destroyed 11,000 homes, and caused more than one billion dollars in damage. The Blizzard of '78 is also remembered for many acts of kindness, cooperation, and courage.
On the first weekend in February of 1978, the weathermen were talking of past storms, not future ones. Two weeks earlier, a record-breaking Nor'easter had brought bitterly cold temperatures and over 20" of snow to Massachusetts.
On Monday morning, February 6th, forecasters had relatively good news: a weak low pressure system would cause temperatures to moderate over the next few days. No one was alarmed when it started to snow at 7:13 AM; no one could imagine that it would not stop for another 32 hours. The storm that began that morning the Blizzard of '78 would go down in Massachusetts history as the most destructive, and most memorable, winter storm in living memory.
The huge amounts of snow, the hurricane strength winds, and the flooding tides that marked this storm were the result of two weather systems colliding and then stalling over New England. A low-pressure system was moving over warm Gulf Stream waters as it traveled up the East Coast. At the same time, a pocket of arctic air was heading south from Canada. When the two systems collided off the coast of New Jersey in the early hours of February 6th, a monster storm was born.
As the blizzard moved up the eastern seaboard, it slowed down and gained strength. By midday on the 6th, it had reached New England, where the storm would break every record on the books. Winds gusts officially peaked at 83 mph in Boston and 92 mph on Cape Cod; scattered gusts exceeded 100 mph. Between two and four feet of snow fell in Massachusetts; some South Shore communities received as much as 54".
In coastal communities, flooding caused the greatest devastation. Most hurricanes and Nor'easters bring one tidal storm surge and then recede; during the Blizzard of '78 there were four successive flooding high tides. One ran into the next, so that for two whole days it seemed to one observer "as if the tide never went out." With flood tides cresting over 15.2 feet, waves surged over, across, and through seawalls.
One Revere woman remembered, "I was sitting in my living room when the waves and the wind were rocking the house. Then, this one wave hit. It was a sound like no other. It roared and whined like a siren. The house groaned and I knew it was time to get out." Her home, like 2,000 others, was destroyed.
Away from the coast, the biggest problem was the sheer amount of snow that fell. When dawn broke on Tuesday, February 7th, snow had been falling throughout the night; it continued all day, accumulating an average of one inch every hour. The intensity of the storm caught many meteorologists, and thus many motorists, by surprise.
Major arteries around Boston were soon clogged with stranded vehicles and jackknifed tractor-trailer trucks. Tuesday morning, an eight-mile stretch of Route 128 turned into a snow covered parking lot. People were trapped in their vehicles as snow piled up to wheel wells, doors, hoods, even roofs. Many people spent the entire night in their cars. "The snow was so high around the car, I could only see the [state] trooper's boots outside my window," one man remembered. "We were so grateful to be alive, to be saved."
Not everyone was so lucky. The Blizzard of '78 claimed 54 lives in New England, 29 of those in Massachusetts. Seventeen thousand Massachusetts residents sought cover in shelters, while emergency workers evacuated another 10,000 people. By the time the storm ended on February 8th, over 11,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Several historical treasures were lost to the sea the Outermost House on Cape Cod, Motif #1 in Rockport, and the Peter Stuyvesant long moored next to Anthony's Pier 4 restaurant in Boston.
The storm did have an a positive side. Neighbors came together to help each other and stranded strangers. The governor ordered all non-emergency vehicles off the roads. With schools, businesses, and roads closed for six days, people got around on skis, snowshoes and sleds. Bostonians remember the quiet and the clean air of their suddenly car-free city. Along the coast, the churning sea threw frozen lobsters and shellfish up on the beach, providing a welcome addition to residents' dwindling provisions.
Almost 30 years later, the Blizzard of '78 still sets the standard for winter storms. People who lived through it can still tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when it hit. Some remember the terror of having their homes flooded by the sea or their cars buried in snow. But most recall the spirit of cooperation even heroism that prevailed. An occasional seaside home still displays one of the bumper stickers that once adorned nearly every Massachusetts car: "I survived the Blizzard of '78."
The Blizzard of '78, by Michael Tougias (On Cape Publications, 2002).
"The Blizzard of '78 Gallery," Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management Office (n.d.)
"Blizzard of '78 Revisited," Massachusetts Civil Defense Agency, After-Action Report. (n.d.)
The Boston Globe, February 6, 1998 and February 6, 2003.