When the Blizzard of 1978 hit the Northeast 40 years ago, meteorologists described the storm as “crippling.”
“We also had a severe Nor’easter and the combination basically crippled the state,” said Gary Lessor, meteorologist of the Weather Center at Western Connecticut State University, who was 10 years old and living in Southington at the time. “For me, that was the worst storm of my life because of the fact we had the other storms prior.”
The blizzard from Feb. 5 to 8 dumped about 2 feet of snow across the state, adding to about 2 feet already on the ground. That, combined with high winds and lack of public preparedness, made conditions hazardous.
The blizzard caused nearly $10 million worth of damage statewide, collapsed the roofs of businesses and homes, and suspended mail for the first time in 30 years. On the morning of Feb. 7, all non-emergency vehicles were prohibited from traveling, which hadn’t occurred since the time of the horse and buggy, according to Lessor.
The travel ban lasted days, and schools and businesses were closed for three to five days following.
Wind gusts reached 70 mph throughout the state, leaving snow drifts up to 10 feet tall. The drifts made it that much harder for plows to clear the roads. At some point, plows didn’t have anywhere to move the snow, as piles had gotten so massive.
The storm started with light flurries on the morning of Feb. 5 and got heavier by noon, when employers started sending workers home. Yet some didn’t make it home for days. More than 2,000 cars were abandoned on state highways during the two-day, three-night storm.
A Feb. 8, 1978 editorial in the Morning Record opined that the 1978 blizzard differed from the 1888 blizzard— which dropped 60 inches of snow— because of society’s growing dependence on travel. Few people had jobs outside of their hometown in 1888, the editorial states.
Just days after the storm, the Morning Record featured an article about a nurse at Yale-New Haven Hospital that left work a half-hour earlier on Monday, Feb. 6, to avoid the brunt of the blizzard. It took her 27 hours to get back to her East Main Street residence, according to the article.
The nurse, Sally Herrick, was forced to abandon her car after it stalled on a highway in New Haven. She stumbled through traffic and down an embankment into a diner in the city. About 150 other people were also taking shelter in the diner, the article stated. By about 3:30 a.m., police evacuated the diner to a school in New Haven. In the morning, a bus took Herrick back to Meriden. She was dropped off near the exit ramp because the bus driver was afraid to get off the highway, the article stated, so Herrick was forced to walk home.
Kevin Nursick, state Department of Transportation spokesman, said he was 4 years old at the time of the blizzard growing up in Glastonbury.
“One of my earliest childhood memories...was stepping out the door of my house after the Blizzard of ‘78 had ended and literally disappearing through the snow,” Nursick said. “That was pretty amazing, I’ll never forget that.”
He said technology and equipment at the DOT has certainly improved, and the public has learned how critical it is to stay off the roads during storms.
“The Blizzard of ‘78 still, I think, was a real shot across the bow for everyone and really made everyone involved have a lot more respect for snow, and that I think has helped,” Nursick said. “That could have been kind of a turning point in getting public engagement and getting respect for weather events.”