Throwback Thursday: Blizzard of ’78 defined snowstorms for a generation

Throwback Thursday: Blizzard of ’78 defined snowstorms for a generation


Editor’s note: This week marks the anniversary of the Blizzard of 1978, which began with gentle flurries on the morning of Feb. 5, 1978. The following account is drawn from a story that ran on Jan. 29, 2015.

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Three snowstorms stand out in Meriden and surrounding towns, said Gary Lessor, assistant to the director of meteorological studies at Western Connecticut State University. Most recently, a snowstorm in February 2013 dropped 36 inches or more on the area. The blizzard of March 1888 will long be remembered as a historic storm, leaving some areas with up to 60 inches of snow. Then there was the blizzard of February 1978, covering most of the region with about two feet of snow.

The 1978 blizzard caused nearly $10 million in damage statewide. Complicating the storm was the fact that there was already about two feet of snow on the ground when the blizzard struck.

There were three major snowstorms in January 1978, the largest on Jan. 20, when 15 inches of snow fell in Meriden. At that point, the storm was considered the worst in more than a decade, according to newspaper archives. Earlier in the month, heavy snow caused the roof of the former Hartford Civic Center to collapse.

Gregory Donovan grew up on Tulip Drive in Meriden and was 16 years old when the blizzard of 1978 dropped more than two feet of snow. While experiencing several serious snowstorms since, none have measured up to 1978 — the defining snowstorm of his generation, Donovan said.

“Most people my age would have to say ‘that’s it,’ ” he said.

Sean Donovan, Gregory Donovan’s younger brother, called the winter of 1978 “an extra heavy snow period.”

With so much snow already piled up, “there was nowhere to put it anymore,” said Sean Donovan, who was 10 years old in 1978.

But just a few weeks later, the state was crippled by the blizzard, which began with gentle flurries the morning of Feb. 5, 1978. By noon, it was heavier and employers began to send people home. Still, some didn’t make it home for days. More than 2,000 cars were abandoned on state highways during the two-day, three-night storm.

A Feb. 8, 1978 editorial in the Morning Record opined that the 1978 blizzard differed from the 1888 blizzard because of society’s growing dependence on travel. Few people had jobs outside of their hometown in 1888, the editorial points out.

“The present storm is more disabling to more people simply because the way of life has changed,” the editorial stated. “Motorized transportation is crippled and the economic consequences of such crippling are more serious.”

On Feb. 10, the Morning Record featured an article about Sally Herrick, a nurse at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Herrick left work a half-hour earlier on Monday, Feb. 6, 1978 to avoid the brunt of the blizzard. It took her 27 hours to get back to her East Main Street residence, according to the article.

She was forced to abandon her car after it stalled on a highway in New Haven. She stumbled through traffic and down an embankment into a diner in the city. About 150 other people were also taking shelter in the diner, the article stated. By about 3:30 a.m., police evacuated the diner to a school in New Haven. In the morning, a bus took Herrick back to Meriden. She was dropped off near the exit ramp because the bus driver was afraid to get off the highway, the article stated, so Herrick was forced to walk home.

Gov. Ella T. Grasso was also forced to abandon a car during the blizzard to walk a mile to the emergency operations center at the State Armory in Hartford.

The 1978 blizzard “was the storm we all measure by,” Sean Donovan said. In the past few years, there have been several storms that have rivaled the blizzard, “but in my 10-year-old mind, nothing will ever beat it.”

“Sean remembers the drifts much higher,” Gregory Donovan said. “They were way over his head.”

After the blizzard, Sean and Gregory Donovan spent their time outside exploring. Their mother, Phyllis Donovan, worked for the Record-Journal and gave Gregory Donovan a camera and film to take photos.

While walking through the neighborhood, Gregory Donovan spotted a backhoe digging out a street. Snow was piled so high, plows weren’t effective anymore, he said. The photo ended up on the front page of the newspaper the next day after Phyllis Donovan hand delivered the photo reel, he added.

Gregory Donovan also remembers attempting to walk through a massive snow drift in his neighborhood and getting stuck for a short time.

“I had to lean and roll out,” he said. “That’s how deep it was.”

For Sean Donovan, the blizzard of 1978 created a winter wonderland. There were plenty of sledding hills near his childhood home.

“A storm like that, we thought it was the greatest thing,” he said.

As long as the power is on and everyone is home safe, Sean Donovan said, he still enjoys the occasional snowstorm.

“Hey, this is New England, this is what you’re going to get,” he said. “As long as everyone is safe, it’s a bonus family day.”
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Twitter: @Andyragz


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