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Do You Remember the Great Blizzard of 1978?

This week marks the 35th anniversary of the two-day storm that paralyzed the Northeast.

It takes a lot of snow to stop the mail from being delivered. There was plenty of it to deal with in early February of 1978 — enough to close all of the roads in Connecticut for three days.

Beginning just before noon on Monday, Feb. 6, 1978, and continuing with hurricane-force winds for the next 30 hours, a ferocious blizzard paralyzed Connecticut. Gov. Ella Grasso herself was stuck in the snow and had to walk through drifts for more than a mile to reach the State Armory Building in Hartford to establish a storm headquarters. The state got between 28-36 inches of snow and had to contend with drifts approaching 18 feet in some places!

Hundreds of motorists were stuck on roads and highways and had to be rescued by snowmobile or by four wheel drive vehicles — vehicles that were uncommon in those days. Grasso closed the roads for three days to all but snowplows and emergency vehicles. After President Jimmy Carter declared Connecticut a disaster area, over 500 National Guardsmen from Fort Hood, Texas, were flown in with equipment to assist with snow removal. It is estimated that more than 100 people in New England died as a result of this storm.

The winter of 1978 had already started out in a notable way. Less than three weeks prior to the blizzard, a snow and rainstorm on Jan. 18 brought down the roof of the Hartford Civic Center. The UCONN men's basketball team had just played a basketball game there in front of a packed house a few hours before the collapse; fortunately, no one was hurt or killed by the collapse. Had the roof collapsed during the game, thousands might have been killed.

In his book entitled Connecticut Climate Book, the late Dr. Mel Goldstein notes that although meteorologists had been predicting a significant snowstorm for days, the storm's ferocity still took many by surprise. Eastern Connecticut had the highest snow totals with 30-36 inches of snow common, not including drifts. Eastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Cape Cod were simply buried with snow. Thousands of motorists were stranded on the Mass Pike, Route 128, and I-95. Several motorists on I-95 died from carbon monoxide poisoning after their exhaust pipes got covered with snow.

The Blizzard of '78 has become the modern standard by which to measure blizzards. Since then, only the so-called "Superstorm" of 1993 can compare. Although its effects were significant in Connecticut, the 1993 storm was much worse in the Mid-Atlantic region and even in the mountains of the South.

Prior to the '78 blizzard, the worst storm in memory was the legendary Blizzard of '88. In early March of 1888, a cutoff low pressure system in Long Island Sound stationed near Block Island pumped snow for several days into New England. Snow totals in some areas exceeded 48 inches! Wind-blown drifts of over 20 feet were common. In fact, the snow was so deep that people in Middletown actually had to dig tunnels to cross Main Street!

Prior to the Blizzard of '88, the worst winter storm in Connecticut history may well have occurred during the winter of 1716-1717. Since weather records back then are scanty, only anecdotal evidence exists to describe the heavy snows of 1716-1717.

John Winthrop of New London wrote of one February storm in 1717: "It continued so long and severe that multitudes of all sorts of creatures perished in the drifts." In addition, four more successive storms at the end of February into early March of 1717 left snowfall amounts between 5 to 10 feet!

So, as we remember the 35th anniversary of the Great Northeastern Blizzard of 1978 — the standard by which all modern blizzards will be remembered for a long time — let's keep in mind that it could have been worse.

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