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The Great (Northeast) Blizzard of 1978

The Storm of the Century

If you're old enough to remember Star Wars' first run in the theaters, if you lived in the Mid-Atlantic or New England, you remember the Blizzard of '78 on February 6, 1978. People were snowed in for days. Cities were paralyzed. The National Guard was mobilized. Homes washed away. People froze on freeways in their cars.

Thirty years later, survivors look back with awe, pride... and in some cases, sorrow.

We were there. We survived. We remember.

The Great Blizzard of '78 - A retrospective by Matthew Rogers

I was too young to know the danger -- all I remember is the wonder. We lived in Chester County, PA, right outside Amish country, among farms, fields, and little clumps of forests that looked like The Shire. Better to be there than in the city: we had a root cellar and food stored away, plus a full rack of split wood and a fireplace. It was still an adventure.

My father was stubborn; he'd heard the weather reports, but stayed at work until the end of the day, then drove home.

Or tried to. Country roads back east are older than you realize; a century or two of use has dug them down below high banks on either side. Snow blows across and falls into the trough. A mile or so from home (it's a miracle he got that far) it was just impossible to cut through. My Dad drove his Buick into a nearby farmer's field where the snowplows wouldn't catch it, then walked home.

He's fortunate he made it home. Even pushing through snow up to your knees can be hard work, hard enough to cause heart attacks. Plus it's easy to get lost in white-out conditions.

My Father's Slides of the Blizzard of '78 in Pennsylvania

Dad ALMOST made it home before he had to bail out in a farmer's field. We trekked up the street the next day to find his old Buick in the drifts.

Dad ALMOST made it home before he had to bail out in a farmer's field. We trekked up the street the next day to find his old Buick in the drifts.

Mom standing in the middle of the street. Our dog insisted on joining the party.

Mom standing in the middle of the street. Our dog insisted on joining the party.

My six-year-old self discovering that even when the wind blows away some of the snow, it can still cover the rhododendrons.

My six-year-old self discovering that even when the wind blows away some of the snow, it can still cover the rhododendrons.

Our front yard. Lovely drifting on the roof.

Our front yard. Lovely drifting on the roof.

At any rate, Dad got home, and we tucked in with the winds howling and the drifts blowing across the yard like ocean waves. I don't remember the night that well. I just remember the days after: walls of snow. I don't remember how long the power was out: that's what the Coleman stove in the garage, the fireplace and candles were for.

Mainly, I remember hiking up the road each day in the bright cold sun, drifts higher than my head. My parents carried shovels. It took them some time even to find where the car was buried. Each day they'd dig a little more of it out, while I helped or played in the snowbanks, digging tunnels. We were snowed in for three days before the plows came. I think school was closed for even longer.

I remember my little black dog hopping along in the snow-paths we made, his tail just visible at the top of each bound.

We were lucky.

Snowfall Totals from Blizzard '78

In parts of NE, it snowed more than 3" an hour. Selected totals:

Providence, RI: 27.6"

Atlantic City, NJ: 20.1"

Boston, MA: 27.1"

Hartford, CT: 16.9"

Rockport, MA: 32.5"

Woonsocket, RI: 38"

Worcester, MA: 20.2"

New York, NY: 17.7"

...and THEN it drifted!

Blizzard of '78 in Massachussetts

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In Harm's Way: Memories of a National Guardsman

From Rich A. Smith in Massachussetts

Wow. Here's a comment left in the guestbook at the bottom of this page. Thanks, Rich, for taking the time to share your memories with us, and more importantly, for serving when we needed you most!

“I was a member of the Massachusetts Army National Guard during the blizzard of 78. I was a young man of 24 and I remember it like it was yesterday. I first heard of the impending storm a few days before and I remember not paying to much attention to it.

Well the afternoon of the first day was when I had a feeling that I was about ready to be called up with the national guard. Sure enough the next morning I heard the radio broadcasting " All members of the Ma national guard are to report to there local units." So on went my uniform and winter gear and off I went. Took me about an hour to get to the armoury at lincoln sq in Worcester ma. I lived only a little over a mile away. I made it through the snow and on foot no less. Well the duty came and I along with all the other guardsman followed the assigments.

I was first ordered to take a c59 tanker filled with fuil and refule all emergency vehicals. Then I was on assigment to help get emergency people to hospitals or where ever they were needed. Still more to do. Find fire hydrents with a squad of men and shovel them out. Well I remember working with the worcester police to use our military trucks to get people to the emergency rooms when needed. Well that is just a short memory of where I was and what I did. I was on duty for almost a week before things were in such a state of near normal life again.

I am Rich Smith and I was PFC in the ist bn 110th Ar of Hdq company lincoln square Worcester,ma.

Here's a salute to all the national guard, police, firefighters, and emergency services personnel who get us through storms and earthquakes and everything else. You folks are heroes!

The Blizzard of '78 in Connecticutt & New England

Book: The Blizzard of '78

More Blizzard of '78 Videos

Below: most of these amazing videos cover the "Storm of the Century" February blizzard that flooded and buried New England, but the Indiana and Fort Wayne videos below showcase the January blizzard in the Midwest that preceded it.

Blizzard Preparedness Tips - Be Ready for the Next Great Blizzard

Ever since the Blizzard of 78, which caught meteorologists and everyone else by surprise, a weather report about an incoming snowstorm triggers one of two reactions from the public (and usually a little of both): panic, and a run on supplies at local stores that strips shelves bare; or indifference, when people have gotten jaded by too many storm warnings and don't realize that this time, for once, the hype is warranted!

Don't panic; just take precautions for that rare storm that proves or exceeds predictions.

(Disclaimer: I am NOT an expert... check the FEMA Blizzard Preparedness website for official information. But here's some tips I've gleaned from other storm-related websites.

  • In winter, keep warm clothes, a flashlight, food, water, and kitty grit (non-clumping... it's great for traction) in your car for emergencies. A space blanket can be a life-safer.
  • If you get stranded on the road, stay in your car unless you're certain you can reach shelter: remember, even half a mile can be too far. If you're running the engine to stay warm, OPEN THE WINDOW at least an inch... snow can block your exhaust pipe, and asphyxiate you with carbon monoxide! Save gas by running the engine long enough to warm the car, then shutting it off.
  • Have a family plan, including what to do if some family members are at work or school. Where will you meet if you have to evacuate? Have at least one contact out of the immediate area you can all (hopefully) call to check in.
  • Be prepared for power and heat to be out for several days. You'll need warm clothes, space blankets, lots of water, non-perishable foods, flashlights, regular blankets, and a first aid kit.
  • When you hear a storm is coming, charge all cellphones. They sometimes -- but not always! -- work when the power is out.
  • Have a battery-operated radio and follow storm reports. You can even buy a special NOAA Radio that beeps and turns on to alert you of any severe weather warnings (see below).
  • Set aside extra dry food, water, litter, and other supplies for pets. Practice collecting pets and putting them in carriers. The pets will hate it, but it's for their own good.
  • Always have $100 cash available: ATMs and the bank won't be accessible if the roads are blocked and the power's out!
  • Don't forget non-essentials: things to keep your family from going stir crazy. That may include a deck of cards, portable games, travel alarm clock, and/or FOAM EARPLUGS (if you have to go to a shelter).

Do You Remember the Blizzard of '78?

Bob Heath on November 04, 2016:

I remember it well in Pittsburgh, I had just purchased a new gravely walk behind tractor and it had a 48" blade I could put on the front. Cost me around $1500.00 dollars. After clearing driveways, parking lots, I had made more than the $1500.

Danangme on January 20, 2016:

All I know is that it took me 6 hours to drive 10 miles from work to my home due to roads closed by drifts and digging myself out of drifts.

Drifts were up to the second story on some homes the next day.

Got real strange as I drove down mountain roads in Northeast Pennsylvania and looked out my driver's window and saw a guy skiing next to me.

Jason Sositko on February 13, 2014:

Fantastic lens as usual, this winter here in Dayton Ohio has been the worst since 81/82, but still 78' would take a lot to equal.

danangme on February 09, 2014:

Worst night I ever experienced since Vietnam.I worked for a service company and after I finished my last job I headed back to my office.When I got there everyone except for me and another guy had already gone home.I lived 10 miles from work,punched out at 4:30 and got home at 10:30 after getting my truck stuck in drifts,towing it out with another truck only to get stuck in another drift.

Hell of a time to quit smoking.

smoothielover lm on April 11, 2013:

We had blizzards here in the UK that year with drifting up to about 8 ft in places but nothing like you experienced here

Allison Whitehead on February 13, 2013:

Wow that is one serious blizzard. We never get snow that bad in the UK, although we tend to grind to a halt with just a fraction of that!

Gardener Don on February 10, 2013:

You'll be able to make a lens on The Blizzard of 2013 after this weekend!

Ellen Brundige (author) from California on February 10, 2013:

@TheCandle LM: Oof, glad you had a hotel that night.

I've gotta pull together a chart of Blizzard of '78 vs. Blizzard of '13 (wow, has it been that long?) snowfall totals. Connecticut really got hammered this time!

TheCandle LM on February 09, 2013:

I do, although I remember the blizzard of '77 better because I had a music audition at SUNY Potsdam and we were on our way home from Potsdam to Kingston, NY, but couldn't make it. We got as far as the Saratoga area if I remember right and spent the night in a hotel.

The storm totals you posted are pretty impressive. I just saw on the Weather Channel that someplace in Connecticut got 40" of snow from "Nemo". I'm still in the Hudson Valley and we got at least a foot, but I don't have the exact numbers. Thanks for the rewind!

Mamaboo LM on January 09, 2013:

Nope, but we did have one hear (Klamath Falls, OR) about 6 winters ago now. Buildings collapsed, people froze to death and all of that nasty stuff that comes with them. Thanks for your wonderful article!

JoleneBelmain on December 21, 2012:

I was in Prince George and I was barely 1 year old... I'm sure if I was older I would have loved it!!! I love the snow, it is so beautiful... and as long as I would have been inside with my family it would have been all good.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!

~BLESSED~

GenWatcher LM on September 06, 2012:

I was in college in Maryland at the time - they actually cancelled classes the next day! My grandfather had it much harder than we did as he was out in Berks county where there was much more snow than we had in MD.

JohnMichael2 on January 30, 2012:

In Connecticut... it wasn't really that bad.

duncan73 on January 22, 2012:

I was five and got hit in the head with an old metal shovel during the blizzard of 78! Have a small scar to this day.

Yubert on January 22, 2012:

It's amazing the power of nature, even when we are ready, even when nations feel they are safe, nature can be surprising and strength it can not be stopped. while in Pennsylvania there are blizzards, other countries or cities tornadoes or hurricanes

GuyB LM on January 22, 2012:

I was young but I remember it well. The power was out but it didn't stop us from having a blast! We had a wood stove blasting out heat and we brought in the charcoal grill in the living room to cook hot dogs. Sure it was a bit smoky and very dangerous, but that's what family is all about. We also lit off a bunch of fireworks we had left over from the 4th and my cousin jumped off off our roof into a snowbank and broke his arms and lost three teeth. It was a week before we could get him to the doctors! Ha, what a time it was back then.

writerkath on January 22, 2012:

I lived in northern NJ at the time, and I'm not sure if we got hit - I honestly don't quite remember, even though I was 18 at the time. I'm guessing we didn't get the wrath of that storm...

harubel on January 22, 2012:

oh horrible since reading ! i was not the witness of the blizzard of 78 but after reading the lens i feel it.

cocomoonbeams on January 21, 2012:

This was the year I was born, so I don't remember it, but it is interesting to read what happened that year.

Katie Harp on January 21, 2012:

blessed by a squid angel :) <3

karen vance loudermilk from charleston wv on January 21, 2012:

great lens I remember that blizzard I was stuck at my sisters house for 4 days before I could get home.

TrentAdamsCA on January 21, 2012:

Such a vivid slice of history. You captured how a major event can be an adventure during childhood. I was on the coast of California. We'd drive to the mountains to see the snow. Your tunnels made me think of making a snow kitty when I was small.

pheonix76 from WNY on January 21, 2012:

My mom has frequently reminisced about this blizzard. It was truly remarkable how much snow fell. Thanks for such an informative lens! I have pinned this.

K Bechand from NY on January 21, 2012:

oh yes - I was young but I remember - snow way over my head ! I was 4. I lived in Haverhill Mass. It was something that you remember - even if you were only 4 ! (I do remember the dog going out on ice crusted snow, and falling in - and my father having to go dig her out - and it was a nearly all day project ... lol - it was quite a storm !

myamya on January 21, 2012:

Very interesting reading! thumbs up

Teri Villars from Phoenix, Arizona on January 20, 2012:

I remember this. I was in Ohio. My Mother ran the car into the ditch and we had to get a neighbor with a tractor to pull us out. The snow banks were so high, we couldn't go any further. I also remember that this was the time my Dad had open heart surgery so when we went to an appointment, I had to drive and I was very new at driving. YIKES! Cool lens. Blessed!

MCB2011 on January 20, 2012:

Great lens! It makes me want to look up the winter of either 78 or 79 where I lived. I remember no snow and temps going down to -30!.

darciefrench lm on January 20, 2012:

I was 7 years old in Hope, BC in 78. We also had a notable blizzard around 96 or 97 in western canada. In jan 2009 we dug our way out of the driveway to drive from BC to Arizona. When we came back a few weeks later, the area was flooded with the fast melt.

dellgirl on January 19, 2012:

Terrific lens, it is very interesting! I like it. Congratulations on making featured lenses on Popular Pages.

Julia Morais on January 19, 2012:

I was born in '78, just after the blizzard. Not that I would have been anywhere near it though. My parents might have heard about it on the news though. Great informative lens.

nursecraft on January 19, 2012:

I survived the winter of 1978 and remember it well. This was the January I went into early labor and we will all remember it forever! Its cool to have all the info gathered into a lens-well done!

Merstarr on January 19, 2012: