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Travel

Blizzard Of 1978

Winter Weather and BlizzardsExecutive BranchUniversity of ConnecticutLong Island SoundSaint Francis CareJimmy Carter

The first flakes fell just before noon. By nightfall, gale-force winds were sculpting massive snowdrifts.

Long Island Sound bucked and surged against the shoreline. Hundreds of cars were stranded along the state's highways, and thousands of people sought refuge in emergency shelters.

When the skies finally cleared 30 hours later, parts of Connecticut were cloaked in nearly 2 feet of snow.

The Blizzard of '78 wasn't the biggest snowstorm to strike southern New England. That distinction belongs to a ferocious, late-winter storm that brought as much as 50 inches of snow to the state in 1888.

But the harrowing nor'easter that blew into the region in 1978 remains etched in the memories of many New Englanders.

Statistics tell part of the story: More than $25 million in damage, hundreds evacuated from coastal areas, and four men dead of heart attacks while shoveling snow.

Gov. Ella T. Grasso shut down the state for three days, and President Carter declared Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts federal disaster areas. A contingent of 547 soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas, flew in to help National Guard crews clean up the mess.

Life's daily rhythms veered wildly off course. Mail delivery ceased for the first time in 40 years. Office buildings darkened, and roads became ghostly still. Even criminals hunkered down: Hartford police reported that major crime fell by one- third.

For some, the storm was nothing but a hassle. It left mountains of snow to shovel and turned even the simplest of tasks, such as a jaunt to the corner store, into an adventure. (Remember, this was the late 1970s, when sports utility vehicles were rare and four-wheel-drive was an anomaly.)

Many people grew stir-crazy after spending three days indoors. But for children, and adults who share a child's sense of wonder, it was an enchanted time. Instead of sitting in school, children spent the days sledding, sipping hot chocolate and climbing atop enormous snowdrifts.

"I remember it vividly,'' said Steve Orvis, who was 8 that winter and living in Farmington. "The whole town was a fortress of ice."

Orvis, now living in Southern California, said he misses the magic of a big blizzard. "When you get older, you don't appreciate winter like kids do,'' he said. "Back then, it was pure fun."

A 10-Cent Part

The Blizzard of '78 certainly didn't sneak its way into New England. Weather forecasters had been hyping the storm for several days before the snow began to fall. On Monday, Feb. 6, those somber warnings spurred schools to close and employers to send their workers home at lunchtime.

C. Wesley Greenleaf was scheduled to work until 4 that day at a marina on Fishers Island, N.Y. The 28-year-old Groton resident had been making the 3-mile trip across Long Island Sound since he was 10, so he wasn't too worried. Still, news of the impending storm prompted his employer to send him home at noon.

Greenleaf and a co-worker, Lance Elwell, set out on a 17-foot Boston Whaler. They had almost reached Noank, their destination, when the engine died. "We were going over some big waves and it just quit," he recalled. "We started drifting west and lost sight of all land."

Soon, the sky grew dark and the snow began to fall at a furious pace. "You couldn't see anything, not even a hand in front of your face,'' Greenleaf said. The roar of the wind made conversation impossible.

The men spent the night frantically bailing freezing water out of their boat. "It was something to do," Greenleaf said. They had to keep moving to fend off frostbite.

Greenleaf thought of his 1-year- old daughter. "It was tough,'' he said. "You would never believe how cold it got.''

Finally, at the break of dawn, Greenleaf and Elwell spied land. They swam a short distance toward an isolated beach on Long Island. After climbing over snow- covered dunes, they found their way to a cottage. A snowmobiler took them to a local hospital, where they were treated for mild exposure.

The ordeal lasted 19 hours. The men later learned that the boat's engine failure was caused by a break on the ignition switch, a part that cost a dime to replace.

The blizzard is a distant memory for Greenleaf, who now works as director of operations for the Groton school system. "I haven't thought about it in years."

"A Fountain Of Strength"

Traveling by car was also treacherous. It took Susan Abrams eight hours to drive from her office on Woodland Street in Hartford to her home in Vernon. Nine months pregnant at the time, she was in tears by the time she pulled onto her street.

In New Britain, another pregnant woman, Elizabeth Cassidy, was at her doctor's office with her 18-month-old son when the storm struck. "We had to leave the car there and hitchhike," she recalled. A passerby took pity on them waddling through the snowbanks and offered them a ride home to Kensington. Today, Cassidy still does not know whom to thank. "I don't know who that fellow was but we would have never made it home without him."

Cassidy wasn't the only one stranded by the storm. Gov. Grasso's car got stuck as she tried to make her way from the governor's mansion in Hartford's West End to the state's storm command center in the State Armory. She walked several blocks through the snow.

Once Grasso arrived at the command center, there was no question who was in charge. "She was a fountain of strength," said James F. Shugrue, who was state Department of Transportation commissioner at the time.

Grasso quickly seized on an offhand comment made by one of her staff workers. "Someone said, `Wouldn't it be nice if the roads were closed?' And the governor made her decision before the 11 o'clock news,'' Shugrue said. Grasso's ruling meant that DOT crews could get out and clear the roads without having to worry about traffic snarls.

Of course, some people had to venture out anyway. Susan Sposito of Glastonbury went into labor just as the storm was gathering steam. Her husband, Peter, placed chains on the family station wagon, and a neighbor came to collect the couple's three children.

Just in case, the Spositos asked a doctor who lived nearby to accompany them on the trip to the hospital. Peter Sposito also tucked a small bottle of scotch in the car. "I'm not sure why I brought the scotch," he said. "I guess I was thinking it might come in handy for medicinal purposes."

The police department arranged for a four-wheel-drive truck to escort the couple, and they made it to St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford in plenty of time. Their son, Michael, didn't arrive until 7:29 a.m. the next day.

"Michael loves it when we tell the story," Susan Sposito said of her son, now a student at Fordham University in New York City." It makes him feel special."

Gallons Of Hot Cocoa

Along with the headaches and hassles, the storm spawned a sense of fun. Neighbors skied down city streets. Card games and jokes sustained strangers thrown together in shelters.

On college campuses, the atmosphere was festive. Beverly Truebig of West Hartford remembers watching fellow University of Connecticut students gleefully jump out of windows into piles of snow.

Edward J. Brown, chef manager at UConn, said stretching food supplies was a challenge. ``We had a lot of problems but we made do,'' he said. ``It was a big party atmosphere on campus and everyone came together.'' He offered hot soup and ``gallons and gallons'' of hot cocoa to the rambunctious students.

At Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, cafeteria workers rationed food. ``We all had enough to eat but there were no seconds,'' said Cindy Kramer of Burlington, who spent the blizzard holed up in her dormitory at Central. Her boyfriend had stocked up on beer before the storm. ``He was a pretty popular guy,'' she said.

Those stranded at work had to make do with less. Stephen Post and several co-workers spent five days at Capewell Manufacturing in Hartford. At first, they subsisted on candy and soda from company vending machines, but after two days, the provisions ran out. ``There was an old Polish woman across the street and she saw us shoveling,'' said Post, who lives in Manchester. ``She brought us a cake and sandwiches. That saved our lives.''

The storm produced plenty of heroes. Sometimes their exploits made the news, such as the 25 Milford firefighters who suffered frostbite fighting a house fire. More often the gallantry was anonymous. There werethe nameless workers who plowed the streets, ran the shelters, tended to the sick and assisted the elderly.

And just as a blanket of snow can turn the most squalid city street into an enchanted wonderland, a fierce storm can make heroes of ordinary folks -- John DeGennaro of North Branford,for example.

``The state was shut down and I was going stir-crazy at home,'' DeGennaro recalled. Against the orders of the governor, he jumped in his car and took a ride through Fair Haven, where he lived at the time.

DeGennaro saw an old man stumbling in the snow. ``He was trying to walk while juggling three bags of groceries,'' DeGennaro said. He offered the man a ride home.

It was, he said, ``the most blessed thing I've done in my life.''

First published February 25, 1998.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Winter Weather and BlizzardsExecutive BranchUniversity of ConnecticutLong Island SoundSaint Francis CareJimmy Carter
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