How the Blizzard of ’78 changed the way we react to winter storms

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — To this day it continues to be the benchmark of all Southern New England snowstorms: the great Blizzard of February 6-7, 1978.

The storm caught many people off guard that Monday and Tuesday, 40 years ago this week. The numbers and impact to this day are historic, with more than three feet of snow recorded at T.F. Green Airport in Warwick and close to four feet of snow in northern Rhode Island.

Hurricane-force winds created huge drifts along with massive coastal flooding along the Massachusetts coastline.

Thousands of people were forced to find shelter during the height of the blizzard, walking through heavy snow and wind.

Seventeen people lost their lives during the storm, some due to carbon monoxide while stranded in cars on the highway, not realizing the snowdrifts were blocking exhaust pipes.

For the Department of Transportation, getting the highways back open was a monumental operation. Hundreds of abandoned vehicles had to be dug out and towed to a holding lot before the roads could be plowed. It would take more than a week before some people could find and claim their cars.

“I went to work at 7 on a Monday and I worked until 3 the following Sunday,” Bill Whelan recalled. “I couldn’t believe the amount of snow coming down.”

Whelan was a DOT plow operator during the storm. He recalls working nearly non-stop for days trying to get the roads open again, taking only occasional “cat naps” and brief food breaks.

“We worked 24 hours a day,” Whelan said. “All of us we were just running on adrenaline.”

A lot has changed over the past four decades and we’ve seen major improvements in forecasting technology, communication and plowing equipment.

“Back then we only had the single plows,” Whelan said. “Plow in the front, no wing plow.”

Those wings double the areal width of the plows but you can’t clear snow with hundreds of abandoned cars on the road.

“When I came up from 95 there were people out there during the day trying to get their cars out with shovels,” Whelan said. “We were there trying to help them, trying to get their cars out, trying to get them off highway as best we could.”

“Traffic was the biggest enemy of the DOT back then,” he added.

But was the Blizzard of ‘78 a complete surprise? Well the answer is yes and no.

A major snowstorm was forecast the night before, with 12-16 inches of snow expected. However, the following morning, Southern New Englanders woke up to no snow. Many thought the storm was a miss or really not expected to be that bad. The public confidence in the forecast prior to the blizzard was low since a previous snowstorm forecast ended up being in error.

It turns out the blizzard was still coming, but the start time had been delayed, with the snow not starting until after the Monday morning rush. The snow began to fall around 10 a.m. and by early afternoon, it was coming down heavily. Students and workers were released early, creating a massive gridlock.

The bottom line: the storm ended up being worse than predicted and the delayed arrival proved to be costly.

The state was brought to a complete standstill. Some students were forced to spend multiple nights stranded in school. Rhode Island Gov. Joseph Garrahy contacted the White House on the evening of Feb. 6, requesting aid and a disaster declaration.

Using the emergency broadcast system, the governor become the face and voice of reassurance to many that week, giving constant updates and vital information. Garrahy had many priorities that needed to be taken care of, including getting the airport plowed and open so heavy equipment could be flown in to help the state recover.

“We found it very quickly – late afternoon, early evening – that this was not the storm we were going to recover from on our own,” said Mike Ryan, the late governor’s press secretary.

“He was out there quite often giving updates, telling people what to be prepared for, that it was going to be a long siege,” he added, talking about his former boss.

Garrahy’s casual attire that day would long be remembered, a seemingly simple flannel shirt that he later said he got as a Christmas gift. Ryan said Garrahy put the shirt on when he got to the State House during the storm and it stayed on for most of that week.

“‘Til the day he died, as a matter of fact, it was just six years ago the day he died, people would come up to him and say, ‘I remember you from the blizzard and your flannel shirt,'” Ryan said.

The state didn’t start returning to normalcy until the following Monday.

The storm that came closest to the Blizzard of ’78 was the Jan. 2005 blizzard, during which 23.5 inches of snow fell at T.F. Green,. However, the impacts were lessened by the fact it struck on a weekend.