New England Blizzards: What History Teaches Us.

Here we are, its March, so why am I not talking about the coming of spring?

Because here in New England, Mother Nature likes to tease us. Just when we think we can put away our mittens and warm hats because it was 50 degrees out yesterday, the sky clouds up, cold wind blows down the back of our neck, and the front yard fills with snow. Yes, that does happen in March.

Let’s call it the dance of the seasons in New England.

This is how it goes. We have loved the autumn colors and hate to see them go. We loved putting on for the first time, warm layers as the nights and days begin to chill in October and November. We get romantic notions about the first snowfall (from old holiday cards and calendar pictures), and look forward to it, even though we never seem to know where we put away our boots or gloves last spring, and usually end up buying more. (Note to self, mark on that calendar next spring where I am putting my gloves.)

Winter now takes hold. We start out freezing and shivering and complaining every time we go outside until about mid January. By then New Englanders are running around in thirty degree weather without coats, or our coats are unzipped. If it hits the forties, we consider that a heat-wave and go outside in only a sweater and everyone comments on what a warm day it was! Yes, we like to complain, but we adapt pretty good.

And when they say there is going to be a BIG snowstorm, we clean out the stores buying up every last bit of bread and milk. Why do we do that? I can tell you…

This behavior stems from our common and geographical history.

We New Englanders remember at least one good blizzard in our lifetimes and the pain and suffering we went through. If we don’t remember, we have heard over and over from an older relative about the mounds of snow and the hardships. They instilled a bit of fear into us, so much so, we don’t want to end up trapped or unprepared like they were.

The National Weather Service defines a blizzard as a storm which contains large amounts of snow OR blowing snow, with winds in excess of 35 mph and visibility of less than 1/4 mile for an extended period of time (at least 3 hours).

Key parts to remember: LOTS of snow that will keep you from going places. HIGH winds that can take out power that is keeping your lights and heat on, and for the New England states that have coastline, it also means dangerous cold surf.

Let’s take a trip back in history to find out where our ancestral fearful behavior comes from.

The year 1717: The Great Snow.

Historical diaries say several storms happened toward the end of February, snow fall after snow fall. There were what is called “white out” conditions, where the snow is falling so fast and being blown about, it causes the air to be so thick with snowflakes it is impossible to see anything around you. This can cause people to loose their way instead of going toward shelter. The snow amounts from that storm in 1717 then recorded up to ten feet or more of snow and drifts from blowing wind to five times that amount covering homes and barns.

Even though most think of December and January being snowy, probably due to holiday books and card designs, statistically in New England the most snowstorms happen the first two weeks of February.

What did those who survived the 1717 blizzards learn from their experience to pass along?

Think about it. Those people had NO warning, yet they may have been more prepared than the people during the next blizzard we will talk about. The country folks in the 1700s and early 1800s were pretty self sufficient. They could convert wagons to sleighs (once they found their buried barns and dug out their horses) and had snowshoes to get around (when they climbed out of second or third story windows). They knew how to put food and provisions aside for rough times. Though I wonder if by early March those cupboards were growing bare!

Painting by N. C. Wyeth: “Snowbound”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s move onto the next big historical New England blizzard: The Great Blizzard of 1888.

It happened in mid March. Mid-March, People! Yes, in New England it can snow five months out of the year, but who really suspects a blizzard in March? A couple years ago locally the St. Patrick’s Day parades had to be postponed due to snowstorms. I even remember it snowing a little on Mother’s Day.

Back to this blizzard. The previous day was mild. I am sure folks were out and about enjoying what looked like an early spring. Just like a hundred years before, there were no early warnings as to what was coming. No TV or radio weather stations. People got their news from telegraph, newspapers, and word of mouth. If someone knew the snow was coming, that information would have never spread fast enough for people to prepare. They were caught completely off guard.

A New York City publication.

This blizzard was a classic. A cold front collided with warm air and the snow came fast and furious with high winds that caused havoc at sea and at the shoreline. It was huge, causing problems all up the east coast from Washington D.C. to Maine. Up to 45 inches of snow fell and drifts went up to forty feet high.

In New York City thousands of people were stranded on the elevated trains. Many were stranded in trains when the tracks became buried. Hundreds of boats were sunk with one hundred lives lost. Back then telegraph, water, and gas lines ran above ground. They froze or were damaged cutting off important resources. Firefighters were unable to get to fires. Like the earlier blizzards, live stock and wild animals also perished. In total 400 people died.

What did we learn from this blizzard? The biggie was the start of burying gas and water lines underground to be out of the elements.

Interesting fact: I have a relative who was born about 9 months later. Bet a lot of babies were born the next fall!

Moving along our historical timeline…

Put on some cool colorful shades and fast forward 90 years to the “Blizzard of 78”

1978 was when the next big blizzard tromped over New England. And you guessed right, it came in February. It started February 4th and lasted a couple days, 33 hours of continuous snowfall dropping from 27 inches to 45 inches, and once again, people were caught completely by surprise. I remember it well!

We knew it was going to snow. We heard that on the news. Forecasting weather still wasn’t very accurate. More often than not, the weathermen got it wrong. There were no sophisticated systems yet to back up their prediction. When there wasn’t any snow early Monday morning, people went about their business, going to work, school, shopping. I was living in Back Bay Boston at the time, and treated that day like any other, off to class I went.

The storm hit like gangbusters! It quickly became white out conditions causing thousands of people on all the highways to come to a standstill. And that is where they stayed till the storm was over. They huddled in their cars that shook from the high winds for hours, some all night into the next day. Remember, no cell phones to call for help. Folks all over ended up having to stay put, be it their workplaces where they only had vending machines for food, or home. I knew people who went to the college hockey tournament called the “Beanpot” at Boston Garden. It was snowing lightly when they arrived. After the games they were surprised to learn they couldn’t leave and became stranded at the arena. I knew of hospital staff who were also stranded, having to work back to back shifts because no relief could get in. Boston was crippled.

Famous photo of Route 128 around Boston where everyone was caught in the blizzard.

On the coast the hurricane force winds kicked up the already higher than normal water level because of the new moon phase’s effect on the tide. Boats and shoreline homes were lost. Shoreline landmarks were lost like the often painted, (my Dad included), “Motif Number 1 in Rockport, MA. Also lost was a famous restaurant I had been to called Anthony’s Pier 4 that was a converted ship anchored at the Boston waterfront.

People in the homes close to the water reported that small stones carried on the crashing waves were thrown against their homes tearing them apart. I have been through hurricanes. Now we can prepare best we can because of long range forecasting, but those folks, they had no warning. There was no time to put up shutters or bring in your boats. There was extensive water erosion on Cape Cod cutting away large parts of the historic beaches.

When the snow stopped falling, and the wind stopped howling, Boston was silent and nothing was moving. It was a bit spooky.

Everyone wandered out to be amazed at the amounts of snow. On our narrow street of brownstones, parked cars were totally buried. You couldn’t tell where the road was. Being young, we didn’t grasp at that moment the magnitude of our situation, so an impromptu huge snowball fight broke out. I still smile at how much fun that was.

Then reality hit.

We really were stuck at home. We all huddled around the television to watch Massachusetts Governor Dukakis in his casual sweater, assure us we would all get through this. That is we watched him when the power wasn’t out.

We were more fortunate than most, our power would only go out for spurts. What about food? If you were lucky you had enough food in your home to get you by until the roads opened up. If you were healthy, and could walk or ski to the grocery stores near you, you had to hope they hadn’t run out of food. No supply trucks were getting in. I remember the National Guard helped get food supplies in after a few days. Are you seeing now where that saying “hurry and get out and buy your bread and milk” comes from?

It took days to dig out. And what did they do with all that snow they had to remove in Boston and New England? Dumped it into the Connecticut River and Boston Harbor. They weren’t big on worrying about contaminants back then. Not so with recent history. Boston saw record snowfall over the winter of 2014-15 with a total of 110.6 inches and they had to store it on land and keep the area clean. That huge mound didn’t melt till July! Yes, we are learning from our history to be better caretakers of the land.

By the time the Blizzard of 78 was over, around 100 had died and over four thousand injured.

So what did we learn from all this Blizzard experience? Pay attention to when they forecast a snowstorm. If you live in New England, it’s a good idea to have some basic emergency supplies handy. Don’t run out at the last minute to buy your stock pile of food! You may find all the bread and milk are gone!

Now for the test that proves we have been paying attention to our history: The Blizzard of 2013.

Right again, it happened in February. What made it very annoying was that we had already survived a big storm several months before-Hurricane Sandy.

Times are different. We learned. We had days and days to prepare. We got a chance to get to the grocery store. We could gas up our cars and our generators. Cities could ban on-street parking so plowing would go easy, and people were warned to stay off the highways.

It was the fastest snowfall I remember. Thirty-five inches of snow landed in my backyard in twenty-four hours. That is amazing!  Elsewhere forty inches fell.  I went to sleep seeing about six inches on the ground, and woke up to find thirty-five up against my backdoor.  I will confess, it was a “what the heck” jaw dropping moment!

Blizzard of 2013, digging out after an overnight snow fall of 36″.

Everything in the backyard was buried.  Cars were mere lumps of white in the driveway.  Not to mention, how does one open a door with three feet of snow against it? For us it was the large doggie door that we could actually open and push some snow back.  It was even too high to use a snowblower so most people had to shovel out, creating trench paths. Towns had to use bucket loaders to remove snow from streets, and then truck the snow to a field. Clean up did go smoother, though the shut down of services lasted almost a week.

We have learned from our history.

Part of that history is that these storms bring out the kindness in people. Every story told about the above blizzards spoke of how neighbors and strangers came to the help of others. And I always loved how everyone came out of their homes and would talk to each other. Snow muffles noise, but conversation and laughter could be heard over the scraping of snow shovels or the roar of snow blowers as we share in our common situation.

As hard as the Blizzards are, it is New England and we accept they happen. The snow does not last forever. We get a few warm days with the changing winds, and it begins to melt to nourish the ground. Come April we will be welcoming spring flowers and wonderful temperatures in the fifties.  We will grumble at the periodic snow showers that pop up even into May, but we know the ground is now warmer and it will not survive more than that day.  Out will come our seed catalogs and gardens are to be planned. The seasons will dance forward, for it is New England and that’s what it does!

 

 

Hope March goes out like a lamb!

Atwood

 

 

 

Here is an excellent short video that shows you how the Boston area was effected in 1978: My favorite quote from it; “Wagon train of entombed cars.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBOYvOjrkA0

Check out these great photos at http://www.blizzardof78.org/photo-library.php

This article about the Blizzard of 1717  http://www.hampton.lib.nh.us/hampton/history/oral/Cram/blizzard1717.htm, tells of homes only being located by a thin curl of smoke coming from a chimney, and of lost and frozen livestock.

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