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Northeastern United States Blizzard of 1978

Northeastern United States Blizzard of 1978

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The Northeastern United States blizzard of 1978 was a catastrophic and historic nor'easter
A nor'easter is a type of macro-scale storm along the East Coast of the United States and Atlantic Canada, so named because the storm travels to the northeast from the south and the winds come from the northeast, especially in the coastal areas of the Northeastern United States and Atlantic Canada...

 that brought blizzard
A blizzard is a severe snowstorm characterized by strong winds. By definition, the difference between blizzard and a snowstorm is the strength of the wind. To be a blizzard, a snow storm must have winds in excess of with blowing or drifting snow which reduces visibility to 400 meters or ¼ mile or...

 conditions to the New England
New England
New England is a region in the northeastern corner of the United States consisting of the six states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut...

 region of the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 and the New York metropolitan area
New York metropolitan area
The New York metropolitan area, also known as Greater New York, or the Tri-State area, is the region that composes of New York City and the surrounding region...

. The "Blizzard of '78" formed on February 5, 1978 and broke up on February 7, 1978. Snowfall occurred primarily between Monday morning, February 6 and the evening of Tuesday, February 7. Connecticut
Connecticut is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States. It is bordered by Rhode Island to the east, Massachusetts to the north, and the state of New York to the west and the south .Connecticut is named for the Connecticut River, the major U.S. river that approximately...

, Rhode Island
Rhode Island
The state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, more commonly referred to as Rhode Island , is a state in the New England region of the United States. It is the smallest U.S. state by area...

, and Massachusetts
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States of America. It is bordered by Rhode Island and Connecticut to the south, New York to the west, and Vermont and New Hampshire to the north; at its east lies the Atlantic Ocean. As of the 2010...

 were particularly hard hit by this storm.

Boston is the capital of and largest city in Massachusetts, and is one of the oldest cities in the United States. The largest city in New England, Boston is regarded as the unofficial "Capital of New England" for its economic and cultural impact on the entire New England region. The city proper had...

 received a record 27.1 inches (68.8 cm) of snow; Providence, Rhode Island
Providence, Rhode Island
Providence is the capital and most populous city of Rhode Island and was one of the first cities established in the United States. Located in Providence County, it is the third largest city in the New England region...

, also broke a record, with 27.6 inches (70.1 cm) of snow. The storm killed approximately 100 people in the Northeast and injured around 4,500. The storm also caused over (US$
United States dollar
The United States dollar , also referred to as the American dollar, is the official currency of the United States of America. It is divided into 100 smaller units called cents or pennies....

in present terms) in damage.

Meteorological history

The storm was formed from an extra-tropical cyclone off the coast of South Carolina
South Carolina
South Carolina is a state in the Deep South of the United States that borders Georgia to the south, North Carolina to the north, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. Originally part of the Province of Carolina, the Province of South Carolina was one of the 13 colonies that declared independence...

 on February 5. An Arctic cold front and a cold air mass then merged with the storm, creating the perfect ingredients for a large and intense low-pressure system.

This storm system made its way up the coast, and approached southern New England late February 6 and early February 7. Since the storm developed during a new moon
New moon
In astronomical terminology, the new moon is the lunar phase that occurs when the Moon, in its monthly orbital motion around Earth, lies between Earth and the Sun, and is therefore in conjunction with the Sun as seen from Earth...

, an unusually large high tide occurred, and the storm brought a massive amount of water along coastal communities. The huge storm surge resulted in broken sea walls and massive property loss.

Strong winds and extremely heavy precipitation brought zero visibility for travelers, and numerous power outages ensued. The precipitation changed to rain on Cape Cod
Cape Cod
Cape Cod, often referred to locally as simply the Cape, is a cape in the easternmost portion of the state of Massachusetts, in the Northeastern United States...

, reducing the total snowfall, but snow continued in the west. By the time the storm ended, thousands of people were stranded and homeless as a result of the storm.

Storm strength

The storm's power was made apparent by its sustained hurricane-force winds of approximately 86 mi/h with gusts to 111 mi/h and the formation of an eye-like structure in the middle of the storm. While a typical nor'easter brings steady snow for six to twelve hours, the Blizzard of '78 brought heavy snow for an unprecedented full 33 hours as it was blocked from heading into the North Atlantic by the strong Canadian high pressure area.

An atypical vertical development of storm cloud
A cloud is a visible mass of liquid droplets or frozen crystals made of water and/or various chemicals suspended in the atmosphere above the surface of a planetary body. They are also known as aerosols. Clouds in Earth's atmosphere are studied in the cloud physics branch of meteorology...

s brought unusual thundersnow
Thundersnow, also known as a winter thunderstorm or a thunder snowstorm, is a relatively rare kind of thunderstorm with snow falling as the primary precipitation instead of rain. It typically falls in regions of strong upward motion within the cold sector of an extratropical cyclone...

 to southern New England
New England
New England is a region in the northeastern corner of the United States consisting of the six states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut...

 and Long Island
Long Island
Long Island is an island located in the southeast part of the U.S. state of New York, just east of Manhattan. Stretching northeast into the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island contains four counties, two of which are boroughs of New York City , and two of which are mainly suburban...

. These storms resulted in lightning and thunder accompanying the snowfall as it fell at 4 inches (10.2 cm) an hour at times.


One of the major problems with the Blizzard of 1978 was the lack of foreknowledge about the storm's severity. Weather forecasting in New England is difficult, and meteorologists had developed a reputation as being inaccurate. Forecasting techniques and technology had improved dramatically in the 1970s, but the public was still quite skeptical. Snow failed to arrive in Monday's pre-dawn hours as predicted, and many locals felt it to be another failed forecast — despite the accuracy of NWS
National Weather Service
The National Weather Service , once known as the Weather Bureau, is one of the six scientific agencies that make up the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States government...

 forecasters' predictions concerning the Great Blizzard — and they went to work and school as normal. Because of this, people had neither time nor incentive to prepare.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts had a system for notifying major employers to send employees home early in the event of heavy storms. Thousands of employees were sent home starting in the early afternoon of February 6, but thousands more were still caught by the storm. Some did not make it home for several days.

Many people were stranded in their cars along road
A road is a thoroughfare, route, or way on land between two places, which typically has been paved or otherwise improved to allow travel by some conveyance, including a horse, cart, or motor vehicle. Roads consist of one, or sometimes two, roadways each with one or more lanes and also any...

s and highway
A highway is any public road. In American English, the term is common and almost always designates major roads. In British English, the term designates any road open to the public. Any interconnected set of highways can be variously referred to as a "highway system", a "highway network", or a...

s throughout the New England region. People perished on Interstate 95
Interstate 95 in Massachusetts
Interstate 95 is the main highway on the East Coast of the United States, paralleling the Atlantic Ocean from Florida to Maine. The Massachusetts portion of the highway enters from the state of Rhode Island in Attleboro and travels in a northeasterly direction to the junction with Route 128 in...

 outside Boston as snow piled high enough to prevent the exhaust from escaping from their idling vehicles. Interstate 95 eventually had to be evacuated by cross-country skiers and snowmobilers. More than 3,500 cars were found abandoned and buried in the middle of roads during the clean-up effort. This figure does not include the countless other vehicles buried in driveways, on the sides of streets, and in parking lots. Other transportation links were disrupted and shut down region-wide, stranding public transit commuters in city centers.

Throughout eastern Massachusetts, automobile traffic was banned for the remainder of the week. Thousands of people walked around the quiet city streets and frozen Charles River
Charles River
The Charles River is an long river that flows in an overall northeasterly direction in eastern Massachusetts, USA. From its source in Hopkinton, the river travels through 22 cities and towns until reaching the Atlantic Ocean at Boston...

, some on cross-country skis.

This blizzard was one of the worst in Rhode Island's history, catching many residents, as well as the state government, off guard. Although Governor J. Joseph Garrahy had ordered an emergency evacuation of all public buildings, shortly before noon on February 6, too many people had lagged. Providence County, Rhode Island was the hardest hit by the blizzard; in particular, the towns of Lincoln, Smithfield, Woonsocket, and North Smithfield all reported at least 40 inches (101.6 cm) of total snowfall.

In New York City
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

, it was one of the rare times that a snowstorm closed the schools; in fact, the New York City Board of Education would only close schools again due to snow once in the next 18 years (April 7, 1982). Most suburban districts in the area close for snow several times each winter, but they rarely do in the city itself because of relatively easy access to underground subways whose ability to run is not appreciably affected by moderate snowstorms.

Many people were caught in the storm while driving, and many others were trapped in their homes or offices with snow drifts of up to 15 feet (4.6 m), in some places blocking the exits. In many cases, those who had become ill or had been injured during the storm had to be taken to hospital
A hospital is a health care institution providing patient treatment by specialized staff and equipment. Hospitals often, but not always, provide for inpatient care or longer-term patient stays....

s by snowmobile
A snowmobile, also known in some places as a snowmachine, or sled,is a land vehicle for winter travel on snow. Designed to be operated on snow and ice, they require no road or trail. Design variations enable some machines to operate in deep snow or forests; most are used on open terrain, including...

. Other people were able to leave their homes and travel for assistance by cross-country skis
Cross-country skiing
Cross-country skiing is a winter sport in which participants propel themselves across snow-covered terrain using skis and poles...

 and sled
A sled, sledge, or sleigh is a land vehicle with a smooth underside or possessing a separate body supported by two or more smooth, relatively narrow, longitudinal runners that travels by sliding across a surface. Most sleds are used on surfaces with low friction, such as snow or ice. In some cases,...

s. One unofficial report stated that 4% of the students, staff, and faculty at Brown University
Brown University
Brown University is a private, Ivy League university located in Providence, Rhode Island, United States. Founded in 1764 prior to American independence from the British Empire as the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations early in the reign of King George III ,...

 in Providence, Rhode Island
Providence, Rhode Island
Providence is the capital and most populous city of Rhode Island and was one of the first cities established in the United States. Located in Providence County, it is the third largest city in the New England region...

, incurred some sort of injury requiring medical attention as a result of the blizzard.

On the evening of the blizzard, two Brown students who were also Red Cross volunteers were able to make their way on snowshoes to the Providence office of the Red Cross. All the regular Red Cross disaster staff were stranded at their homes. People from throughout the city called the office to ask for food and other supplies. Many of these people had abandoned their cars on I-195 and found their way to makeshift shelters in various buildings near the highway. At 2 a.m., the two students loaded backpacks full of supplies from the Red Cross stockrooms and headed out toward the shelters. They encountered high winds and cars covered in feet of snow. One Providence fire truck was stranded across an intersection in Fox Point, its red lights spinning and firemen asleep in the cab. The students were able to reach shelters with food and supplies, and headed back to the Red Cross office. At 5 a.m., they borrowed snowshoes and skis from the Brown Outing Club and contacted the media to recruit neighbors and students who were skilled in winter travel. More than 500 students and neighbors took shifts around the clock delivering supplies to private homes and makeshift shelters across Providence. At one point, a National Guard helicopter landed on the school's athletic field to refresh the Red Cross supplies. These volunteers were part of a larger effort of citizens taking care of each other for days, awaiting rescue by National Guard units from the Carolinas who came equipped with front-loaders large enough to begin moving snow off the streets of Providence.

There was also the issue of flooding along coastal areas. The fierce northeast winds from the storm — with the low pressure area stalled off of Martha's Vineyard — combined with astronomically high tides and storm surge
Storm surge
A storm surge is an offshore rise of water associated with a low pressure weather system, typically tropical cyclones and strong extratropical cyclones. Storm surges are caused primarily by high winds pushing on the ocean's surface. The wind causes the water to pile up higher than the ordinary sea...

 resulting from the storm's low pressure to send water over low-lying land along the shores of Long Island Sound
Long Island Sound
Long Island Sound is an estuary of the Atlantic Ocean, located in the United States between Connecticut to the north and Long Island, New York to the south. The mouth of the Connecticut River at Old Saybrook, Connecticut, empties into the sound. On its western end the sound is bounded by the Bronx...

, Cape Cod Bay
Cape Cod Bay
Cape Cod Bay is a large bay of the Atlantic Ocean adjacent to the U.S. state of Massachusetts. Measuring below a line drawn from Brant Rock in Marshfield to Race Point in Provincetown, Massachusetts, it is enclosed by Cape Cod to the south and east, and Plymouth County, Massachusetts, to the west....

, and other bodies of water, resulting in some of the worst coastal flooding ever recorded. The flooding continued through two days of tide cycles, a total of four successive high tides. Thousands of homes throughout coastal Massachusetts were damaged or destroyed, as well as landmarks such as "Motif Number 1
Motif Number 1
thumb|350px|"Motif Number 1"Motif Number 1, located on Bradley Wharf in the harbor town of Rockport, Massachusetts, is a fishing shack well known to students of art and art history as "the most often-painted building in America."...

" in Rockport
Rockport, Massachusetts
Rockport is a town in Essex County, Massachusetts, United States. The population was 6,952 at the 2010 census. Rockport is located approximately 25 miles northeast of Boston at the tip of the Cape Ann peninsula...

, an oft-painted fisherman's shack renowned in art circles. The Peter Stuyvesant, a former Hudson River Day Liner turned into a floating restaurant, was sunk in Boston Harbor. The region's fishing fleet was likewise decimated by the storm.

Aftermath and recovery

Boston and Providence recorded all-time highs for 24-hour and storm snowfall records. Many people were left without heat, water, food, and electricity
Electric power
Electric power is the rate at which electric energy is transferred by an electric circuit. The SI unit of power is the watt.-Circuits:Electric power, like mechanical power, is represented by the letter P in electrical equations...

 for over a week after the storm finished. Approximately 10,000 people were forced to move temporarily into emergency shelters. Some 2,500 houses were reported seriously damaged or destroyed and 54 people were killed
Death is the permanent termination of the biological functions that sustain a living organism. Phenomena which commonly bring about death include old age, predation, malnutrition, disease, and accidents or trauma resulting in terminal injury....

, many from fallen electric wires. Several people were found dead in downtown Providence, Rhode Island
Providence, Rhode Island
Providence is the capital and most populous city of Rhode Island and was one of the first cities established in the United States. Located in Providence County, it is the third largest city in the New England region...

, particularly in the vicinity of the central police station, who may have died trying to seek shelter. Ten-year-old Peter Gosselin, of Uxbridge, Massachusetts
Uxbridge, Massachusetts
Uxbridge is a town in Worcester County, Massachusetts, in the United States. It was first settled in 1662, incorporated in 1727 at Suffolk County, and named for the Earl of Uxbridge. Uxbridge is south-southeast of Worcester, north-northwest of Providence, and southwest of Boston. It is part of...

, disappeared in the deep snow just feet from his home's front door but was not found until three weeks later. The majority of the interstate system had to be shut down, with some stretches not reopening to traffic until the following week. Air and rail traffic also had to be shut down until the situation cleared up.

Because the snowfall rates were so high, plows
A snowplow is a device intended for mounting on a vehicle, used for removing snow and ice from outdoor surfaces, typically those serving transportation purposes...

 could not keep up with removal as fresh amounts fell, causing it to pile up too high to be plowed easily. Plows were further hampered by the number of cars stuck on the roads because of the heavy snow. In Boston, the snow drifts and levels were so high that the city's sanitation department was overwhelmed, as there was no more room to put the snow, so much of the snow had to be hauled and dumped in nearby harbors. Throughout the region, the high winds caused enormous drifts.

A state of emergency
State of emergency
A state of emergency is a governmental declaration that may suspend some normal functions of the executive, legislative and judicial powers, alert citizens to change their normal behaviours, or order government agencies to implement emergency preparedness plans. It can also be used as a rationale...

 was declared by governors in the affected states and the United States National Guard
United States National Guard
The National Guard of the United States is a reserve military force composed of state National Guard militia members or units under federally recognized active or inactive armed force service for the United States. Militia members are citizen soldiers, meaning they work part time for the National...

 was called out to help clear the roads. Additional troops were flown into Boston to assist. It took six days to clear the roads as cars and trucks buried under the snow needed to be removed before the routes could be opened. The blizzard brought out a feeling of camaraderie, as it affected everyone equally. Neighbors assisted each other, using sleds to transport elderly persons and helping to deliver groceries for those in need. Governor Ella Grasso ordered all roads in Connecticut
Connecticut is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States. It is bordered by Rhode Island to the east, Massachusetts to the north, and the state of New York to the west and the south .Connecticut is named for the Connecticut River, the major U.S. river that approximately...

 closed except for emergency travel, effectively shutting down the state for three days; Governor Michael Dukakis
Michael Dukakis
Michael Stanley Dukakis served as the 65th and 67th Governor of Massachusetts from 1975–1979 and from 1983–1991, and was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1988. He was born to Greek immigrants in Brookline, Massachusetts, also the birthplace of John F. Kennedy, and was the longest serving...

 of Massachusetts did the same.

Extensive beach erosion
Erosion is when materials are removed from the surface and changed into something else. It only works by hydraulic actions and transport of solids in the natural environment, and leads to the deposition of these materials elsewhere...

 occurred on the east coast of Massachusetts. Especially hard-hit were Cape Cod
Cape Cod
Cape Cod, often referred to locally as simply the Cape, is a cape in the easternmost portion of the state of Massachusetts, in the Northeastern United States...

 and Cape Ann
Cape Ann
Cape Ann is a rocky cape in northeastern Massachusetts on the Atlantic Ocean. The cape is located approximately 30 miles northeast of Boston and forms the northern edge of Massachusetts Bay. Cape Ann includes the city of Gloucester, and the towns of Essex, Manchester-by-the-Sea, and...

, both on the eastern shore of Massachusetts. Duxbury Beach
Duxbury Beach
Duxbury Beach is a beach in the town of Duxbury, Massachusetts. It is four miles long and is accessed by the Powder Point Bridge from Duxbury.It is a barrier beach, defined by sand dunes, rosa ragusa, and beach grass...

 was hit with 85 mi/h gusts. In Truro
Truro, Massachusetts
Truro is a town in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, United States, comprising two villages: Truro and North Truro. Located two hours outside Boston, it is a summer vacation community just south of the northern tip of Cape Cod, in an area known as the "Outer Cape"...

, on Cape Cod, the Atlantic Ocean
Atlantic Ocean
The Atlantic Ocean is the second-largest of the world's oceanic divisions. With a total area of about , it covers approximately 20% of the Earth's surface and about 26% of its water surface area...

 broke through to the Pamet River
Pamet River
The Pamet River is a river in Truro, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. It is named for the Paomet tribe.The river is primarily salt marsh, flows west nearly all the way across Cape Cod from its eastern beaches, and empties into Cape Cod Bay. It lies a few miles south of the Little Pamet River.The upper...

 for the first time during this storm, completely washing away the link between the North and South Pamet roads. The town chose not to reconstruct the link, though the right-of-way is still open to pedestrians.

Many homes along the New England and Long Island coastlines were destroyed or washed into the ocean. Many roof collapses occurred across New England
New England
New England is a region in the northeastern corner of the United States consisting of the six states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut...

 from the snow (although not that of the Hartford Civic Center
Hartford Civic Center
The XL Center, formerly known as the Hartford Civic Center, is a multi-purpose arena and convention center located in downtown Hartford, Connecticut, USA. It is owned by the City of Hartford and operated by Anschutz Entertainment Group under contract with the Connecticut Development Authority...

, which had collapsed a few weeks earlier in the morning of January 18, 1978 during another snowstorm).

Further reading

External links