The Blizzard of ’78 – 35 Years Later, What Have We Learned?

Sometimes hardy New Englanders take perverse pride in the bad weather we endure. But that didn’t stop us from getting very concerned when Sandy headed our way last October. And it didn’t help to prevent the tragic losses that piled up during the Blizzard of ’78, which formed off the coast of South Carolina 35 years ago today, then pounded New England for two days after that.

The Blizzard of ’78 was really more of a winter hurricane than a blizzard. And not just a hurricane, but a “bomb”  – a meteorological term that refers to how quickly pressure fell during the storm’s formation. People were caught unprepared for the rapidly deteriorating conditions, leading to dozens of fatalities on land and at sea. Not only were thousands of people stranded on the roads, unable to get to safety, but the suddenness of the storm took mariners by surprise as well. In his bestseller Ten Hours Until Dawn, New England author Michael Tougias tells the riveting and tragic story of what occurred as several vessels rushed to the aid of a heating oil tanker that was taking on water after running aground in Salem Sound. The tanker was fine in the end, but the Can Do, one of the boats that attempted to provide assistance, was not – sinking with all hands lost.

The overall devastation from the storm was enormous. Tougias describes the aftermath well:

“In Rockport, cars were flung into the Old Harbor along with a house. Bearskin Neck houses were crushed, then ripped by the seas, including the red wooden building known as Motif #1, a popular subject for artists.”

 

“Motif #1” in Rockport was severely damaged during the Blizzard of ’78. (Photo by Mass.gov)
“Motif #1” in Rockport was severely damaged during the Blizzard of ’78. (Photo by Mass.gov)

 

“Up and down the Massachusetts coast, seawalls were flattened and hundreds of residents became trapped in their houses, encircled by swirling water that prevented them from running to higher ground.”

Particularly hard hit was Revere, just north of Boston and south of Salem… Three homes were totally leveled and several others suffered extensive damage from fire. However, it was the breaching of the seawall that did the most damage… The Beachmont section of Revere saw the worst devastation. Homes were bobbing down the streets, and many people thought they would literally be swallowed up by the sea.”

 

The breaching of the seawall in Revere left extensive destruction on Ocean Ave. (photo by the Boston Globe)
The breaching of the seawall in Revere left extensive destruction on Ocean Ave. (photo by the Boston Globe)

 

One of the reasons the destruction was so extensive from the Blizzard of ’78 was its horribly timed concurrence with an astronomical high tide. You may recall a more recent storm that visited our shores with the same bad timing.

Sandy reset our collective notion of “storm damage” in the Northeast. Most of us will never forget the images that scrolled across our screens that awful night (those of us that didn’t lose power, anyway), of subway tunnels flooding and horrible fires and a dark, so dark, New York City. More than three months later thousands of people are still suffering without heat or homes in Sandy’s aftermath. Nobody was really prepared for the scale of Sandy’s ravages. But Sandy was not a complete surprise. There have been some notable forerunners.

We’ve had our share of big storms on the East Coast. The Blizzard of ’78, of course, stands out. And 1938 is legendary for the Hurricane of 1938, or “The Long Island Express,” which rocketed up the coast at an unprecedented 70 miles per hour, taking out communications as it went, preventing people in its path from getting warning about the cataclysm that was headed their way.

1991 was an especially bad year – bringing us Hurricane Bob, the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history at the time, in mid-August, and the unnamed hurricane that sprang, very bizarrely, from the “Perfect Storm” that fall, which damaged parts of New England even worse than Bob had.

We know these big storms will come our way from time to time. We also know that our seas are rising – simply put, as they get warmer they expand. Disturbingly, we have recently come to understand that the sea is rising much faster in the Northeast than the global average. The ocean is coming closer, and the big storms will keep coming as well.  It’s time to get our act together and plan better for these big storms. We are weather-hardy in New England, but we are also smart enough to get prepared.

We can and should plan ahead. Employing the principles of regional ocean planning will help our coastal communities prepare for the next storm, using tools like the Boston Harbor Association’s model for “no regrets” adaptation to sea level rise, Massachusetts’ Storm Smart Coasts, and NOAA’s Hazard-Resilient Coastal & Waterfront Smart Growth, and building on lessons we are learning from our tempestuous history. We need a comprehensive, science-based, and participatory process that allows everyone who will be affected by decisions about our coastal areas to have a say in how we prepare for storms and sea level rise, and how we respond in the aftermath.

Hopefully it will be a very long time before we have to find out how ready we are for the next big storm – how well we have learned from the Blizzard of ’78, from Sandy, Bob, and the others. But, just in case we don’t have long to wait, let’s roll up our sleeves, get prepared, and make a plan for the worst.