In Connecticut they called it ‘Storm Larry.’ But to anyone old enough to remember, the words ‘1978 blizzard’ conjure up some very snowy memories.
The 1978 blizzard started with snow during the morning of February 6. It didn’t stop for 33 hours, dumping two feet of snow on New England. Sometimes it fell as fast as four inches an hour. Parts of Boston’s South Shore and Woonsocket, R.I., got hit with the most: 54 inches.
Two feet of snow had already fallen in previous storms, causing the collapse of the Hartford Civic Center the month before.
The 1978 blizzard killed about 100 people and injured about 4,500. In central and southern New England, the snowfall turned to ice at night, leaving everything covered with ice. The snow turned to rain on Cape Cod, but the wind wreaked plenty of havoc.
Wind speeds reached 79 mph at Logan Airport, 92 mph at Chatham Weather Station on Cape Cod, and unofficial reports said wind gusts exceeded 100 mph. From Provincetown to Eastern Maine, the northeasterly winds flooded the coast. Ten thousand people evacuated.
In Connecticut, 547 National Guardsmen cleared roads and returned people to their homes – if they still had homes. In Massachusetts, a massive effort to clear Logan’s runway allowed 200 troops from Ft. Bragg and Ft. Devens to manage the emergency response.
The snow took New England by surprise. No one advised people to stay home. Weather forecasters knew something was coming, they just didn’t know what. Only CBS’s Harvey Leonard seemed to have a clue: “We are going to get hit hard.”
The sun and moon aligned to cause spring high tides that produced record floods. In Massachusetts, the flood destroyed 2,000 homes between Marblehead and Plymouth and damaged another 10,000. One flood tide ran into the next; with four successive flood tides, it seemed the tide never went out. The South Shore and Revere, Mass., took the hardest hits from the flood tides and towering waves.
When Mrs. Joseph Conley returned to her home in Scituate after the storm, the tide surge demolished everything but the toilet. She was lucky. A giant wave ripped five-year-old Amy Lanzikas from her mother’s arms while they were being rescued in a firefighters’ skiff. Amy and a Scituate neighbor, Edward Hart, drowned during the rescue attempt.
Some Snow Day
People left school and work early so they could get home, but the snow fell so fast that staying put would have been safer. Thousands of cars had to be abandoned on the highways. Snowdrifts trapped 3,000 cars and 500 trucks along eight miles of Rte. 128 alone. Fourteen people died of carbon monoxide poisoning while sitting in their snowbound vehicles.
In New England’s cities, the 1978 blizzard stranded thousands more cars that took days to dig out. Connecticut Gov. Ella Grasso abandoned her car on the highway and walked to the Hartford Armory.
Boston Mayor Kevin White could only make his way home slowly from Palm Beach. He won little sympathy by complaining about the cold weather in Florida and that he ‘didn’t even swim in the pool.’
Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, on the other hand, was everywhere during the 1978 blizzard — in his cardigan sweater. He happened to be on a radio call-in show with David Brudnoy on the evening of February 6. He heard from Revere residents on the second-floor of their houses wondering whether they’d survive. As panic set in, Dukakis began to direct the emergency response on the Brudnoy show. “I am pleading with Winthrop Shore Drive residents to evacuate their homes!” he said, between calls from constituents complaining about discrimination enforcement and civil service exams.
Many people ended up trapped in their workplaces, living off vending machine food during the 1978 blizzard. People slept in pews at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Needham, Mass., which sheltered 2,000.
In Dedham, Mass., 300 stranded motorists ate popcorn and watched movies at the Showcase Cinema just off the highway.
Hockey fans in Boston who came to watch the Beanpot college tournament got stranded at Boston Garden. For several days they ate hot dogs, slept in the bleachers and, as Boston Globe writer Dan Shaughnessey pointed out, used ‘combs and deodorant left behind by Terry O’Reilly and Wayne Cashman.’
In Massachusetts, the flood tides and giant waves dragged Motif No. 1, Rockport’s famous fishing shack, into the harbor. The high tides wiped out the Outermost House on Cape Cod and submerged the Peter Stuyvesaant, a restored riverboat outside of Anthony’s Pier 4 in Boston. Motif No. 1 was restored, but the Peter Stuyvesant was not.
The postal service couldn’t deliver the mail for the first time since the Great 1938 Hurricane. One letter carrier got stranded in Providence, so he slept on sacks at the post office for two nights. He had to field a phone call from a woman complaining she didn’t get her mail.
In Massachusetts, the MBTA actually performed well. On the Monday after the storm, the driving ban was still in effect. The MBTA carried 50 percent more riders than it did on an ordinary day. The load strained the equipment so that the MBTA had to curtail commuter rail service by 25 percent for two months.
In Montville, Conn., someone wrote a plea to the governor — ‘ELLA HELP’ — in the snow on a lake. Grasso saw the message from a helicopter. She then transmitted a communique through the National Weather Service asking anyone with a four-wheel-drive vehicle to volunteer. Many did. Grasso ordered all roads and highways closed to everything but emergency vehicles, and asked schools and businesses to shut down. So did Gov. Michael Dukakis in Massachusetts and Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy in Rhode Island.
President Carter declared Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut federal disaster areas.
Many remember the storm fondly because it built a sense of community. In Cumberland, R.I., for example, it took 10 days to plow out the roads. People gave a neighbor money to go shopping. He hauled a sled two miles to the IGA and back with food. Cross-country skiers and snowmobilers evacuated people from cars stranded on I-95. Snowmobiles and sleds took people to hospitals.
In Hull, Mass., Lillian Willis and Joanne Fallon prepared meals in a local middle school for 1,400 people in 36-hour shifts over 10 days. On the fourth day, Willis’ shoes fell apart.
The storm suspended work and school, so people played in the snow. UConn students made Star Wars sculptures. Brown students jumped out of dorm windows into the snow and made an eight-foot-high snowball. But according to one report, 4 percent of the Brown students and employees needed medical attention during the 1978 blizzard. Peter Gosselin, 10, jumped off his porch roof into the deep snow, hit his head and died in a snowbank. He wasn’t found for three weeks.
After the 1978 blizzard ended, entrepreneurs quickly capitalized on it. One company made a board game called the Great Blizzard Travel Game, which at one point you could buy for $59 on eBay. Others made T-shirts that said, “I Survived the Blizzard of 1978.” And “We Survived the Blizzard of ‘78” bumper stickers were as ubiquitous as Michael Dukakis’ cardigan sweater.
Dukakis actually had four or five cardigans. After the 1978 blizzard, people gave him a sweater when he appeared at a speaking event. He eventually gave 40 cardigans to the Goodwill. (Rhode Islanders, by the way, were treated to the sight of Gov. Joseph Garrihy in a flannel shirt.)
To see a video of the 1978 storm, click here. This story was updated in 2023.
Images: Boston City Hall By City of Boston Archives from West Roxbury, United States – Snow near City Hall, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65429193; Boston during cleanup By City of Boston Archives from West Roxbury, United States – Workers and residents during blizzard cleanup, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65420068. Women on top of snowbank, By City of Boston Archives from West Roxbury, United States – Women on top of snow drift near City Hall, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65420027