Wednesday marks 30th anniversary of paralyzing, deadly storm

Warnings of heavy snow went unheeded and many paid the price.

After waiting for hours on snow-clogged highways, gas gauges and patience dipped and drivers abandoned their cars to take their chances on foot, making their way through wind-whipped, freezing cold.

Plows, hemmed in by slow or stalled traffic, could not keep up with the storm and road conditions worsened.

This wasn't the Blizzard of '78. It was Dec. 13, 2007.

Wednesday marks the 30th anniversary of the Blizzard of '78 that crippled the East Coast for a week, killing 29 people in Massachusetts, destroying 2,000 houses and damaging another 18,000.

It was the storm that everyone old enough to have been there remembers where they were when it struck and how they survived the days of isolation in
the clean up.

While many forecasters and public safety officials downplay the possibility of being caught off guard again because of improved forecasting tools and techniques, some observers say the Dec. 13, 2007, storm exposed present-day problems.

``Obviously we have many more cars on the road now than we had back then,'' said Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency spokesman Peter Judge. ``That's obviously a problem as we saw with the storm in December.''

The major problem on Dec. 13 was traffic, not necessarily snow, Judge and others point out.

``The issues with that storm were people's inability to drive through it,'' Judge said. ``Physically they could not get through it. People were not able to drive because of traffic not because (of the snow).''

Massachusetts Highway Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky agreed that Dec. 13 was more about a traffic jam than a snowstorm.

``An interesting statistic we found was that afternoon peak period represented 125 percent of roadway capacity,'' she said. ``So we would have had massive traffic regardless of weather.''

Unlike the Blizzard of '78, people did not die buried in their cars on the highway Dec. 13 because the storm let up by evening.

The reasons for all the traffic have to do with how the storm started.

``Natural human tendency is to wait until the snow starts falling to act,'' Paiewonsky said. ``Most storms start slowly, but in this case it arrived as almost a full-blown storm.''

Both Judge and Paiewonsky also noted that because the storm happened early in the season after two mild winters, Bay State drivers were rusty in their ability to gauge the coming blast.

The traffic jam only worsened road conditions, particularly on hilly stretches of Rte. 128 and I-495 where ice buildup and low visibility caused numerous accidents.

Ultimately the problem with the December storm and why some have said it created problems similar to the Blizzard of '78 was timing. Striking at midday meant people were already at school and work and some ignored the advice of forecasters and the governor regarding when to go home or avoid the roads.

In the days after the storm, Gov. Deval Patrick said he asked state workers to go home no later than 11:30 a.m. and he advised employers to do the same. The storm began at 12:30.

After Hurricane Katrina, Judge said he noticed people everywhere were much quicker to heed the advice of safety officials about evacuations and precautions.

But time erodes that sense of caution.

``You know we haven't had a hurricane in years so the concern is always how people respond - even though you tell them it's time to leave, they still want to go down to the seawall to see the big waves,'' Judge said.

Better equipped

Channel 5 meteorologist David Epstein of Natick said another storm on the level of 1978's blizzard could and will happen.

``When is anyone's guess,'' he said.

He said computer model forecasting has come a long way since 1978. People would have more of headstart than 1978. Some forecasts from the morning of Feb. 6, 1978 did not point to a major storm and people in those days did not pay attention to the weather forecast.

Alan R. Earls, 52, of Franklin, was living with his parents in the Cochituate section of Wayland and working in Cambridge when the blizzard started.

But he didn't know about it.

``I started work at 4 p.m. and it was snowing and I didn't think anything of it. I didn't pay attention to forecasts,'' he said.

``Then at 7 p.m., the supervisor came in and told us to go home.''

Earls, who published a book last month about the storm titled ``Greater Boston and the Blizzard of '78,'' said the scene that greeted him on his ride home in a borrowed Chevy Vega was frightening.

``Rte. 30 was 18 inches deep with two deep ruts from some larger vehicle that must have gone ahead of me,'' he said. ``I saw no other cars moving on my way home. I kept driving, maybe 25 mph. If I slowed down I wouldn't have been able to keep going. I went through I don't know how many stop signs.''

Earls eventually left his car in a supermarket parking lot a half-mile from his parents' house and walked the rest of the way.

``The wind was just howling and I literally had to lean into the wind during the half-mile walk back to my parents' house.''

Once home, Earls, like everyone else, was stuck for days while roads were buried under nearly four feet of snow and drifts 15 to 20 feet high. That kind of snow was too much for the six-cylinder local trucks trying to plow. Travel was banned for days. But local public works directors believe superior equipment today would mean a quicker cleanup.

Large V-plows, truck-mounted snowblowers and huge diesel engines all make moving snow easier compared to 1978, said Tom Hladick, Natick highway supervisor.

``I don't think it would be a week or so before we got things open,'' he said. ``It's manpower and if everything keeps running I think we'd be better off. You could go down a street and blaze a trail.''

Communication is also much better now.

Hladick said many trucks had no radios in 1978. Now trucks have radios, some state trucks have satellite tracking systems and the state has 27 road sensors buried around the region to provide instant weather and road surface conditions.

Judge and Paiewonsky said cell phones and the Internet also keep communities connected during storms. But equipment and communications can fail.

``Equipment breakdown is always a concern,'' said Milford Highway Surveyor Shelly LeClaire. ``In a back-to-back storm where my employees are here around the clock, I do not have the luxury of shifting them out. Sometimes we'll lose the storm because I don't have the manpower to keep them out there.''

Paiewonsky also said manpower is a concern.

``We had many more employees in 1978 - we probably had 4,000 in '78,'' the commissioner said. ``Now, we have 1,800 but we will add another 100 this year.''

Just how bad?

Better equipment, more communication, and accurate forecasts would help the region handle a monster storm but the sheer volume of commuters now compared to 1978 worry some.

``That storm in December showed the potential,'' said Earls. ``I have no doubt that we've all grown accustomed to fairly manageable winters and manageable storms but I think we could be overwhelmed.''

More commuters could mean more trapped cars on a snowbound highway leading to a prolonged cleanup and transportation nightmare similar to - or even worse than - 1978.

``There would be instead of several thousand cars stuck on highways (like in 1978) there could be 50,000 cars stuck'' today, Earls said.

Epstein, the meteorologist, also pointed to the December storm as an example of how bad things could get, and worse.

``Although the the traffic was monumental in the December storm ... the duration of the snow was limited. Had the December storm lasted 12 hours more or longer, we would have seen traffic issues perhaps on the scale of 1978.''

Paiewonsky said she would hope more people would stay off the roads, work from home and heed warnings to use public transportation or wait out the storm until roads were cleared.

Hladick had a similar solution: ``They need to come up with a system that when something like that is predicted they need to not let everybody go at the same time.''

Ultimately, it comes down to people using good judgment.

``I think people generally do make pretty good decisions when they have the right information,'' Paiewonsky said.

But thinking advancements on snow fighting and forecasting are the perfect weapons against a blizzard would be a mistake.

``When you have Mother Nature versus technology, Mother Nature always has the upper hand,'' Paiewonsky said.

Rob Haneisen can be reached at rhaneis@cnc.com or 508-626-3882.

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