Have we learned anything?

What the Blizzard of 1978 has taught us about emergency preparedness in Mass.

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter J. Howe
Globe Staff / February 3, 2008

What if it hit today?

It's hard to imagine New England ever again facing a storm with the unique fury of the Blizzard of '78, a northeaster accompanied by exceptionally high tides and hurricane-strength gusts.

One of the worst storms of the last two centuries, it smothered the region in up to 54 inches of snow, destroyed 2,000 homes, stranded thousands of motorists, killed 54 people, and inflicted $3.2 billion in damage.

If that kind of storm were to come back, it would hit a much different New England, a society with many things that were unknown in 1978: cellphones; Internet access; telecommuting; ubiquitous bank cash dispensers; advanced weather forecasting radar; and computers feeding round-the-clock television and news websites.

But also anywhere from two to six times as many cars on the road and far more workers making long suburban commutes.

With so many variables to consider, it's hard to predict confidently how well the region would cope with a 1978-scale storm. But Paul Guzzi, who 30 years ago was the secretary of state, accompanying the famously sweater-clad Governor Michael S. Dukakis at blizzard news conferences, said, "My instinct is we would cope better."

Commuters on Dec. 13 might not have agreed. Greater Boston got a stunning wake-up call about what snow can do to modern-day traffic, when a mere 10 inches - landing just as thousands of commuters hit the road and snarled plowing crews - plunged the region into a gridlock that turned many commutes into six- and eight-hour ordeals.

But for Guzzi, times are still different. The single biggest factor, he said, is that "we have longer lead times in terms of weather forecasts." An approaching '78-sized blizzard today would probably be banner-headline, top-of-the hour news, three or four days before it hit.

The morning the 1978 storm began, the Boston Herald American published a story on the lower half of the front page predicting that "six inches of snow and winds gusting to 40 miles per hour are expected to strike the Boston area and southern New England today and tonight." It turned out to be 27 inches of snow (up to 50 inches in some parts of the region) and 92 miles per hour hurricane winds.

Guzzi, now chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said that was typical of how ill-warned officials were about the coming storm's ferocity.

Dukakis, 30 years removed from being the 42-year-old first-term governor, said because of extraordinary advances in telecommunications since 1978, "I think there's much more of a willingness now to say, 'There's a storm? OK, we'll work from home today,' " an option that did not exist for hundreds of thousands of Bay State workers three decades ago.

Peter Judge, spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said, "From a state perspective, our intelligence gathering is so much better." They also have more and better equipment: In 1978, 2,800 plows were on the road; now, they usually max out at 4,000.

In 1978, the agency leaned heavily on amateur ham radio operators and citizens-band radio owners to share information. "There were people holed up in places that nobody knew about," Judge said, including makeshift shelters that rapidly ran out of food.

Today, the agency still enlists 30,000 ham radio operators in a kind of emergency-information militia, but has sophisticated Web-based conferencing and information-sharing systems linking hundreds of state and local government agencies.

The Dec. 13 storm showed how heavy snow can still turn expressways into parking lots. But one huge difference is that today, with more than 85 percent of Bay State adults owning wireless phones, they could at least call home or send a text message.

In 1978, then-46-year-old Jack Hill was among those stuck in his car overnight on Route 128 in Canton. "I was scared, and I don't mind admitting it," Hill told a Globe reporter in a story published the Saturday after the storm. "All I could think of was if I fell and injured myself, they wouldn't find my body until spring."

Hill found his way to a nearby factory for shelter and went on to live another 21 years. But back home in Milton during the 1978 storm, his wife, Maria, was having the most anxious night of her life. "We didn't have cellphones, so I spent all night shoveling the driveway," she said in an interview last week. "It was better to do something than sit here all night, worrying. I worked my nerves off."

The next day, Jack Hill was able to call their neighbor - Maria was outside shoveling when he called, and they had no answering machine - to assure Maria he was alive. Dozens didn't make it. The various and grim ways people died included carbon monoxide poisoning in running cars, heart attacks while shoveling snow, and freezing to death in snow banks. Two Scituate residents were swept off a rescue boat and drowned.

While today, stranded motorists would probably be able to spare their loved ones the kind of worry many endured in 1978, far more would probably get trapped than the 3,500 stuck on Route 128. Even if many people warned by forecasts stayed home, the reality is baseline traffic on Eastern Massachusetts highways is now two to six times heavier than in 1978.

Route 128 through Weston, for example, carries 205,000 vehicles a day, compared with fewer than 100,000 in 1978, according to state transportation spokesman Mac Daniel. Traffic on Interstate 93 at Roosevelt Circle in Medford has jumped 150 percent, to 206,000 cars a day. And Interstate 495 in Westborough, just north of the Massachusetts Turnpike, handled just 16,000 vehicles daily in the 1970s, compared with 106,000 today. Dukakis, whose televised governance of the 1978 storm response is often called his finest hour, insists that "so much of this has to do with who's running the show," stressing that the real credit belonged to his public safety secretary, Charles V. Barry, a one-time Boston Police commander who was a fanatic about emergency preparedness. Barry died in 2000.

"When the snow started falling, Barry was ready," Dukakis said. "All I had to do was put on my sweater of the day and go on TV and ask, 'Charlie, what do I say today?' "

It's that kind of preparation Dukakis said he most worries Boston might not have for a similarly epic storm now, doubts he harbors particularly in light of the way the medium-sized storm seven weeks ago tied the region in knots. "You didn't get any sense that law enforcement was quickly mobilized to go out and start directing traffic," Dukakis said. "There weren't people out there."

Peter J. Howe can be reached at

Dolphin Avenue, Revere

About 3,000 homes were damaged in the hard-hit city, many of them in Beachmont.

Egypt Beach, Scituate

This house was never rebuilt, leaving a vacant lot next to a house that sits on thick concrete piers.

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