It was a Monday morning, February 6th, 1978. Across Southern New England, snowflakes were beginning to gently and gradually float down from the sky. Thousands of people were going about their daily lives, heading to school and work, dismissing dire forecasts of a powerful blizzard. However, in the days ahead, those people would come to regret that decision.
One day earlier, the storm that became the New England Blizzard of 1978 began its life just off the coast of South Carolina as a weak low pressure system. As the warm tropical moisture contained within it interacted with an arctic airmass and upper-level low tracking across the Appalachians, it began to strengthen rapidly and track northward, bound for New England.
Upon reaching Martha’s Vineyard, the now monster storm encountered strong high pressure to the north over southeastern Canada and Greenland. Unable to break through, it could go no further. The strong would remain stalled in that location for the next 36 hours, dumping heavy snow on New England the entire time.
The fact that the storm was so powerful and lasted so long was disastrous for the unprepared states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. People there heard the forecasts, but either assumed that the predictions were wrong or thought that it wasn’t going to be a big deal, so they headed into work that morning.
The snowfall rate would exceed an inch per hour.
Shortly before noon, the first flakes begin to fall. But soon, the snowfall rate would exceed an inch per hour. As the snow began to pile up quickly, workplaces and schools sent people home early. As these people flooded out onto the roadways, plows became unable to handle the rapidly accumulating snow due to heavy congestion. Soon, more and more cars became stuck in the snow, turning almost every major highway into a parking lot. On Route 128 in Massachusetts alone, over 3000 vehicles were stranded in the piles of snow.
Stranded motorists had a difficult choice to make: they could remain in their cars and risk freezing to death, or they could set out on foot and risk becoming lost in the whiteout conditions. Neither choice proved to be a good option. As many as 14 people were reported to have been killed as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning from clogged exhaust pipes, while several others were found dead in the deep snow in the days that followed.
Miles to the east of the gridlocked streets and highways, a different story was playing out in coastal communities. Near the coast, where it was a bit warmer, the snow mixed with rain at times, greatly reducing the total accumulation. But, instead of heavy snow being the problem there, it was the strong winds and storm surge.
Hurricane was devastating too
During the height of the storm, hurricane force wind gusts of 112 mph in Scituate, MA, 93 mph in Chatham, and 79 mph in Boston were recorded. These incredibly strong winds pushed ocean water onto the shore, causing severe coastal flooding. This problem was only exasperated by the astronomical high tide occurring during the height of the storm.
As the ocean rose as high as 14 feet over the typical high tide level, thousands of seaside homes were inundated with water and pounded by gigantic waves. This scene played out in nearly every town on the eastern shores of Massachusetts, with communities like Scituate, Plymouth, and Bourne all sustaining heavy losses. Nearly 2000 homes were completely destroyed. Dozens of boats also broke free of their moorings and came crashing into the flooded towns, becoming totally wrecked.
By the evening of Tuesday February 7th, however, the ocean began to recede and the snowfall began to die down. Southern New England could now begin to pick up the pieces left behind by this monster storm.
The record amounts of snow
The snow totals were staggering, and many of the records set have remained unbroken for more than 30 years. Providence’s T.F. Green Airport recorded a whopping 28.4 inches of snow, while 27.1″ fell in Boston. In northern Rhode Island, which bore the brunt of the heavy snow, well over 3 feet fell in spots. An incredible 55 inches of accumulation was reported in the Providence suburb of Lincoln, with wind-blown drifts reaching up to 27 feet high.
In total, the storm caused 520 million dollars in damages. Due to inflation, that number would be over 1.5 billion today. In a tragic footnote, 99 people died as a result of the storm: 73 in Massachusetts and 26 in Rhode Island.
All of the snow also took days to remove, especially with thousands of abandoned cars clogging the roadways. Some streets remained unplowed for up to a week as crews struggled with the cleanup. Students also remained out of school until at least the next Monday.
Slowly but surely however, the region began to recover
Streets were dug out one-by-one, largely by the work of volunteers. By the next Monday, one week after the snow had begun to fall, both Boston and Providence reopened for business. Finally, in what is perhaps an ironic twist, the snow that fell on those two days ended up being the only accumulating snow for the entire month.
Today, the memory of that great blizzard remains engrained in the minds of the people affected. Though there is little doubt that another storm like it will one day come, the lessons learned that year make another catastrophe unlikely.