Blizzard of 1978 slammed region exactly 35 years ago
PITTSFIELD -- This certainly isn't the first time the Berkshires have endured an epic storm. In fact, it was exactly 35 years ago that the region was struck by a monstrous coastal storm that became known as the Blizzard of ‘78.
And while the Berkshires were spared the worst of the storm, which devastated the eastern part of the region, the impact was felt in Western Massachusetts for weeks afterward.
Heavy snow and hurricane-force winds slammed Boston and Providence between Monday, Feb. 6 and Tuesday, Feb. 7, 1978, killing more than 50 people, displacing more than 10,000 and paralyzing much of eastern New England. Throughout the Northeast, schools and businesses were closed, highways impassable, and intermittent power failures killed the lights. Some remained without power for more than a week.
"It was devastating," said John Hockbridge, owner and director of the North Adams-based New England Weather Associates.
Hockridge said that in over 33 hours the storm dropped 11.5 inches in the Berkshires, but more than 27 inches in Boston and Providence, and some places in Rhode Island recorded more than 40 inches.
Roughly 3,500 cars were left abandoned by people getting stranded and seeking shelter, many on the Massachusetts Turnpike. One couple died when their car was completely buried and the exhaust fumes couldn't escape the car, suffocating the victims. All in all, 54 died as a result of the storm, many from downed power lines, Hockbridge said, while 3,500 homes were destroyed or damaged and about 10,000 people were moved to emergency shelters.
Locally, by the time the storm hit, the county's supply of snowblowers for sale had dwindled dramatically.
Other effects of the storm are revealed in The Berkshire Eagle's archives: an Amtrak train derailed in Boston; a Peru resident was stranded for about five hours on Grange Hall Road in Hinsdale; a Lenox ambulance crew had to break through heavy drifts on their way to Holliston Junior College to rush an expecting mother to Berkshire Medical Center; the New York Times, Washington Post and the Berkshire Eagle all suspended newspaper deliveries to some of their local subscribers; local National Guard armories were put on "standby alert" for possible deployment to Boston; high winds caused snowdrifts that nearly blocked the Mohawk Trail and Route 9 in Windsor; and the A.H. Rice Mill in Pittsfield suspended operations.
A political note from the 1978 storm -- state Rep. Frank J. Matrango, D-North Adams, had to serve as acting speaker of the House when only 30 of 240 representatives made it to the Statehouse -- most of them Western Massachusetts delegates stranded in Boston by the storm.
For several days the county was cut off because buses and trains had curtailed service, and the Pittsfield Airport was open but other major airports around the Northeast remained closed, so there was no where to fly to.
A group of Berkshire Community College women basketball players became stranded in Worcester, so they volunteered at Doctors Hospital changing bed linens, washing dishes and performing other tasks.
In the aftermath, the government responded with financial aid for storm recovery, including a check from the U.S. Federal Disaster Assistance Administration for $8,175 to Pittsfield and four other communities for "emergency snowplowing costs." By the end of February 1978, the state Legislature approved up to $20 million to reimburse roughly 400,000 workers who were prevented from working because of the storm between Feb. 6 and Feb. 12.
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