Northeastern United States blizzard of 1978
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|Category 5 "Extreme" (RSI: 18.42)|
Maple Street in Woonsocket, Rhode Island
|Formed||February 5, 1978|
|Dissipated||February 7, 1978|
(US$1.89 billion in 2016 dollars)
|Casualties||Around 100 fatalities; 4,500 injured|
|Areas affected||Northeastern United States|
The Northeastern United States blizzard of 1978 was a catastrophic and historic nor'easter that brought blizzard conditions to the New England region of the United States, New Jersey and the New York metropolitan area. The "Blizzard of '78" formed on February 5, 1978 (a Sunday) and broke up on February 7, 1978. The storm was primarily known as "Storm Larry" in Connecticut, following the local convention promoted by the Travelers Weather Service on local television and radio stations. Snowfall occurred primarily between Monday morning, February 6 and the evening of Tuesday, February 7. Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts were particularly hit hard by this storm.
Boston received a then-record 27.1 inches (69 cm) of snow; Providence also broke a record, with 27.6 inches (70 cm) of snow; Atlantic City broke an all-time storm accumulation with 20.1 inches (51 cm). Nearly all economic activity was disrupted in the worst-hit areas. The storm killed approximately 100 people in the Northeast and injured around 4,500. The storm also caused over US$520 million (US$1.89 billion in 2016 terms) in damage.
The storm was also the last storm to strike the region with a Regional Snowfall Index rating of Category 5 "Extreme" intensity, until roughly 38 years later, when another crippling and historic blizzard struck the Northeast, primarily to the south, where numerous records were broken, more than the Blizzard of 1978 broke.
The storm was formed from an extratropical cyclone off the coast of South Carolina 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 it developed during a new moon, 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, reducing the total snowfall, but snow continued in the west. By the time it ended, thousands of people were stranded and homeless as a result of the storm.
The storm's power was made apparent by its sustained hurricane-force winds of approximately 86 mph (138 km/h) with gusts to 111 mph (179 km/h) and the formation of an eye-like structure in the middle. 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 a strong Canadian high pressure area. In many areas in Central and Southern New England, the snow falling at night turned to an icy mix that left a notable layer of solid ice on every external surface. This ice greatly complicated recovery efforts in subsequent days, as it added considerable weight to power lines and tree limbs. Trees that survived the daytime snow did not survive the nighttime ice storm.
An atypical vertical development of storm clouds brought unusual thundersnow to southern New England and Long Island. These storms resulted in lightning and thunder accompanying the snowfall as it fell at 4 inches (10 cm) an hour at times.
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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 National Weather Service (NWS) 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 region was already reeling after storms in January 1978 that left nearly two feet of snow in some areas of New England, and had caused the collapse of the roof of the Hartford Civic Center.
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 roads and highways throughout the New England region. Fourteen people perished on I-95 outside Boston as snow piled high enough to prevent poisonous exhaust fumes from escaping from their idling vehicles. I-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.
Snowplows were also among vehicles stranded in traffic as the snow continued to fall. At one point on I-93 north of Boston, a jackknifed tractor trailer blocked traffic in both directions, with a similar event occurring on Route 128 near Route 138 in Canton. The Neponset River also flooded I-93 in Milton, resulting in the highway being completely shut down.
A massive effort was made to clear Logan Airport runways for some 200 National Guard troops arriving on 27 C-130 and C-141 military transport flights from Fort Bragg and Fort Devens, after being called out by the governor.
11,666 college hockey fans in Boston Garden, then the site of the 26th edition of the annual "Beanpot" college ice hockey trounament, unintentionally held at the time of the blizzard's outbreak, came out to find a far different reality than they expected. Some spectators would spend the next few days living at the arena, eating hot dogs, and sleeping in the bleachers or locker rooms. Due to the Blizzard, the second round of the "Beanpot" that year was not held until March 1, 1978, the latest date ever for the "Beanpot" tournament's concluding games in the event's history.
Throughout eastern Massachusetts, automobile traffic was banned for the remainder of the week. Thousands of people walked around the quiet city streets and occasionally over the frozen Charles River, 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 (100 cm) of total snowfall.
In New York City, 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 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 hospitals by snowmobile. Other people were able to leave their homes and travel for assistance by cross-country skis and sleds. One unofficial report stated that 4% of the students, staff, and faculty at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, incurred some sort of injury requiring medical attention as a result of the blizzard.
There was also the issue of flooding along coastal areas. The fierce northeast winds from the storm—with the low-pressure area stalled off the island of Martha's Vineyard—combined with astronomically high tides and storm surge resulting from the storm's low pressure. This sent water over low-lying land along the shores of Long Island Sound, Cape Cod Bay, 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" in Rockport, an oft-painted fisherman's shack renowned in art circles. The Peter Stuyvesant, a former Hudson River Day Line boat turned into a floating restaurant, was sunk in Boston Harbor. The region's fishing fleet was likewise decimated by the storm.
The storm's remarkable straight-line surface winds were attributable in the physical destruction of homes along coastal areas, often aided by coastal flooding and wave damage. Wind gusts of 100 mph (160 km/h) were observed in Plum Island and 110 mph (180 km/h) at First Cliff in Scituate, Massachusetts. Duxbury Beach was hit with 85 mph (137 km/h) gusts and 93 mph (150 km/h) in Chatham.
Aftermath and recovery
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Boston and Providence recorded all-time highs for 24-hour and storm snowfall records. Many people were left without heat, water, food, and electricity 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, many from fallen electric wires. Several people were found dead in downtown Providence, 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, 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, snowplows 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 was declared by governors in the affected states and the United States National Guard 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. Governor Ella T. Grasso ordered all roads in Connecticut closed except for emergency travel, effectively shutting down the state for three days; Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts did the same. The parking lot of Fenway Park was used for the National Guard to stage their recovery efforts. In Massachusetts, there was no travel ban again until 35 years later, when governor Deval Patrick announced a travel ban on February 8, 2013, running from 4 pm that day until 4 pm the next day due to the February 2013 nor'easter, which had snowfall totals rival and even beat in some spots the Blizzard of '78; in the case of the 2013 blizzard, often called the "Blizzard of '13", the ban was declared before the worst hit; in the Blizzard of '78 this happened after the storm's worst.
Extensive beach erosion occurred on the east coast of Massachusetts. Especially hard-hit were Cape Cod and Cape Ann, both on the eastern shore of Massachusetts. In Truro, on Cape Cod, the Atlantic Ocean broke through to the Pamet River 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 open to pedestrians. Monomoy Island was split into north and south parts.
Many homes along the New England and Long Island coastlines were destroyed or washed into the ocean. Many roof collapses occurred across New England from snow load, although not the Hartford Civic Center's, which had fallen during another snowstorm a few weeks earlier on the morning of January 18, 1978.
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