It was the week Rhode Island stood still. There were some reports of 2-3 feet of snow with drifts up to 27feet. One hundred people perished, and there was nearly $2 Billion in damage (2012 money). The Blizzard of 1978 was a catastrophic snow storm for Southern New England…with major effects on Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
- Courtesy NOAA: Blizzard of 1978 satellite image showing an eye-like feature near the center.
It developed on February 5th off the Carolina coast, and the first snow flakes began to fall in Rhode Island during the late morning of February 6th. Children were already in school, and people were already at work. Once it was realized that this storm meant business, it was too late. Cars were stranded on the highways with 1,950 cars stranded on Routes 95, 195 and 146 in the Greater Providence area alone. Many lost their lives from carbon monoxide poisoning when the snow piled up over the tail pipes of cars. School children were stuck in their schools for days. One of the saddest stories was from Uxbridge, MA where a little boy went missing for 3 days. He was found just steps from his front door, buried in feet of snow.
- Cars Stuck on Route 95 in Providence
It snowed for an amazing 36 hours! Providence received nearly 2.5 feet of snow, while an unofficial report from Lincoln measured more than 3feet! Snowfall rates were staggering and showed the intensity this storm packed. Generally, 2-3″ per hour were observed, but 4inches per hour were measured, mainly where thundersnow was reported. Despite those snowfall rates, the incredible snow totals were mostly due to the slow movement of the storm. A very strong area of high pressure to the north of the storm blocked its forward progress, allowing Southern New England to be pummelled with snow and house-rattling winds for an extended period of time. Providence and Boston both broke 24 hour snowfall records during this storm, each with 27inches.
- Courtesy: Boston Globe. A home in Revere, MA destroyed by large waves.
What makes a blizzard different from a regular snow storm is the wind. The winds howled at hurricane strength during the ’78storm. Chatham, Massachusetts had a wind gust of 93mph. The storm’s verocity was similar to that of a Category 1 Hurricane….except one that moved very slowly. The storm hit during a New Moon and tides were about 4 feet above normal. Winds put another 12 feet on top of that! Hundreds of houses along east coastal Massachusetts were destroyed. In Rhode Island, whipping winds and snow dropped visibilities to zero for many hours. It was difficult to see where you were going (that’s if you could go anywhere). Once the snow and wind stopped, the governors of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut declared States of Emergency. Rhode Island Governor J. Joseph Garrahy activated the National Guard to help clear the snow. The State was essentially shut down for a week. While a lot of bad came out of the storm, a lot of good emerged. Everyone was affected equally and neighbors helped neighbors get through this event.
The Blizzard of ’78 came at a time when weather forecasting was much more difficult. Computer models had recently emerged, but weren’t timely enough. With that said, forecasters actually made a good forecast for the Blizzard, but bad forecasts earlier that winter lowered the public’s confidence in the meteorologists’ abilities. For what it’s worth, even if public confidence was high, no one could have expected or been ready for what actually happened.
In 2014, computer models are much more sophisticated, and we get the information in a much more timely manner than in the late 1970s. The emergence of the Internet has allowed meteorologists to use computer models from around the world including the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Brazil, Korea and Japan. Forecasts and possible impacts have become much more accurate during the past 36 years and that accuracy will only continue to improve with the emergence of better computer models.
-Meteorologist T.J. Del Santo