The 42nd anniversary of the Blizzard of ’78 is a day away; or at least the start of it. The date was February 6 1978 and the forecast that Monday morning was nothing extreme, maybe 8-12” expected, but certainly nothing even remotely close to the madness that was coming. I went to work as usual that morning and was assigned to work outside on a ballast tank under construction. Working outdoors was common for us back then as space was scarce and space that included adequate ceiling height for submarine sections was even scarcer, so a lot of sections were built outside. It was hot in the summer and cold in the winter and was always unpleasant in rain or snow.
There was already snow falling when I headed out into the cold to begin working, but we had already experienced close to 2’ of snow in January along with a devastatingly ice storm just the week or so before, so I really didn’t give it a lot of thought. I needed a ladder to start my job and I still remember digging around in the snow under the module for a 10’ wooded ladder, which I eventually found and began using. The next few hours are hazy to me, mostly because it was, despite the snow falling at an ever-increasingly rapid rate, really just a typical winter work day. As the morning moved along, as usual when it snowed, people began to leave; those who had a long way to drive, those who hated driving in the snow, those who had bad cars or bald tires (laughably common back then), or those just looking for an excuse to leave. I lived only five miles from the base – typically a ten-minute drive – so I felt no urgency to leave…needed the money to be honest.
At some point my boss came out and brought me inside and told me to go home – we were closing down operations. I really have no idea as to the time, but I think it was around noontime. But here is where I begin remember with better fidelity and detail. I was driving a 1977 Rally Sport Camaro, not quite a year old yet. It was a 250cuin straight six with a 3-speed stick; a pathetic choice for a powerplant in an absolutely awesome car. (I ended up trading it in for a 1978 LT Camaro just a few months after this epic storm.) Rear wheel drive, as per most all the cars back then, so it sucked in the snow, but since, as I just said, most others were also rear wheel drive, almost everyone’s car sucked in the snow. Especially on this day.
There is currently only one way out of Quonset Point – only one road. But back then, there was the one-mile long main straightaway out or you could cut into the old Navy housing complex, which would lead you onto a back local road with which you could get out to Rt.1 – this to avoid the madness that was EB getting out of work pretty much anytime day or night, rain or shine. It could, on the best days, be a little Mad Max like on the mile-long raceway out; in the bad weather, you’d give an extra snug on your seatbelt and it was not uncommon to see men do the sign of the cross before engaging in that free-for-all.
On this day, no one was achieving any speed at all since the snow was already approaching a foot deep; all there was were sliding and spinning cars along with an occasional horn honking along with a few choice curse-words out the window. The advantage to the main drag out was that the plows had been at least trying to keep up with the snow; the road was not clear by a longshot, but was marginally passable. None the less, I opted for the housing complex and the back roads, hoping to avoid the bumper cars surely one swerve ahead on the access road. So I took the left and took my chances on the unplowed road…and immediately got stuck…along with six or seven others trying to duck out the back way.
It took a while but we all helped each other by shoveling and pushing each other’s cars and we eventually all made it to the local road, which unlike the housing roads, had been plowed. And a few hours after being sent home, I actually got home. And once I did, I discovered that Teri’s sister Lori, who also worked in Quonset (at a different business) had been sent home but hadn’t made it yet. She drove a Carmen Ghia, which was terrible in the snow, and we were all concerned. So I hopped back into the car and drove back to Quonset looking for a car off in ditch somewhere along the road. I never found her and headed home, to find her there safe and sound – we apparently passed each other on the road but given the incredible winds and the heavy driven snow, we never saw each other.
It was now fairly late afternoon and was glaringly obvious to all of us that this was no ordinary storm. The winds were easily blowing in excess of 60MPH and there a couple of feet of snow had already fallen with no signs of stopping. The only one missing now was Teri’s father, who had left around noon to drive to his job in Providence some 30 miles away. He was driving this little yellow Datsun (the company is now called Nissan) B210 model called a Honey Bee. It was a bright yellow low-cost economy car, sold to folks who had to drive a long way to work and trying to avoid the outrageous gas prices we all faced at the time. I used to tease him that my mother’s sewing machine had a stronger motor than his car did. Well, that little motor got him all the way to Providence and then all the way back home again with him rolling up to the house somewhere around 8PM.
The next morning we awoke to snow still falling and winds still whistling; the beast had not yet released us from it’s icy torment. I think the news reports officially list it as 33 hours but it seemed much more than that. The final snow depth was extremely difficult to determine; the fierce winds created insane drifting and there was no “calm areas” to try to get a flat snowfall depth. I think 28” is the agreed upon total, but everywhere I tried to measure it was upwards of 3 to 5’ because of the drifts. Cars just vanished overnight, completely cloaked in the massive drifts.
I am huge fan of science fiction, with a decided nod to apocalyptic or dystopian hues of the genre. And this blizzard is the closest I’ve ever come to being in such a movie, at least in my first 63 years here on earth. Before I continue, some context. There was no internet then. Nor were there PC’s, smartphones, or cable TV. We had three TV VHF stations (and a couple of UHF stations on a good day along with some tinfoil) and you needed a rooftop aerial to get a shot of seeing any of them. News could take hours to reach the world, or even longer in some cases, so there was no “live” reports with minute by minute updates and there was no fleet of weather people with Doppler radar to update us every five minutes with wind and precipitation totals. We were, literally, in the dark. No power, no TV, no news. And no cars – at all – the roads, when you could make out where they used to be, were empty; empty excepting the shadowed humps of snow that secreted abandoned cars beneath them. There was no movement, anywhere. It was if the world had just stopped.
And it stayed that way for close to a week. Plows fought the snow and drifts and little by little, lanes of travel emerged, But the State issued a travel ban and the state and local police enforced it with vigor, so there were almost no cars ever seen. But what we did see was people, out everywhere; walking, skiing, sledding, and snowmobiling. In fact, snowmobiles proved to be the chariots of heroes through the crippled state; in many cases they were the only vehicles able to reach homes and people in need, delivering food and medicine to thousands throughout the state. And the other thing we saw, everywhere, was shoveling – people shoveled for days on end trying to uncover their cars, open a path to the road or the shed or the…wherever. Just a lot of shoveling.
The storm hit on Monday and by Tuesday night I had my car unburied and had I been allowed to drive, I could have. I called work to see if they were open on Wednesday and they told me that if I could get there, they had work for me. So I drove to work and quickly discovered that the “work they had lined up for me required little more than a shovel and a strong back. They loaded myself and five or six others who had showed up into a van and dropped us off in pairs in various locations needing shoveling. The big plows and heavy construction equipment (such as front-end loaders) were handling the roadways, but they could only get within 20’ of the buildings and the rest had to be hand shoveled, along with countless walkways.
I remember the first drop-off; the van stopped and the guy in charge point to the building that was about 80’ from us. He said, “See that area under the overhang? That is a loading dock. See those two pieces of wood sticking up out of the snow? Those are the handrails of the steps up to the loading dock, which is 5’ high. I need you to shovel from the plowed area here in the road to each of the sets of stairs leading up to the lading dock.” My partner and I look at each other in disbelief. The area between snow and the steps was a smooth flat surface leading right up to the edge of the loading dock. It seemed inconceivable that there could be a five-foot rise there. And that was when I learned about the amazing things that wind and snow can do when they conspire together. It was a massive, 300’ long and 80’ wide snow drift! The first couple of shovel scoops were mere inches deep. But each successive shovelful bit into increasingly deeper snow. At the halfway point it was probably 2’ deep; by the time we hit the first step of the stairs, the snow was all of 4’ deep and was a royal pain in the butt (and the back) to throw up and over the wall of snow.
And so was my life for the next week, into work to shovel for 10 or 12 hours a day and then home. Because of the driving ban, they gave us all a letter to show to the police in case we were pulled over (and I was, several times). We shoveled tons of snow – literally. And throughout the entire day, every day, and as I was told at night as well, every five minutes or so there was a massive construction dump truck loaded to the hilt with mounds of snow, driving across the base to the seawall where they formed a line waiting to back up to the bay and dump their white cargo into it. Around the clock, for days on end. I have no idea how many trucks they were using, but there had to have been over 30 or 40 of them, in constant motion getting filled and then dumping. It was amazing.
I recall being dropped off to shovel the south side of HiBay with about five or six others. It is a big building, 125’ across and around 60’ high at the roof. They could only plow to 10’ or so of the hangar doors and they needed the rest hand shoveled. There is an overhang and I remember a huge drift hanging off of it, but being so high up, I was underwhelmed with it – and that proved to be a mistake. After sitting in the warm sun for a few hours, in above freezing temperatures, the snow drift fell. All of it. All 125’ across by however deep it was, it silently came down all at once. It hit the ground so violently that we were almost knocked off our feet; it was like an earthquake or as if a bomb had gone off. Happily, luckily, no one was under it when it fell. We had been under it, on and off, while we shoveled and moved about, but we were all clear of it when it dropped. It left a mound of snow 3-4’ deep and probably six feet across all along the 125’ long building doorway. It was a mind-boggling amount of snow that fell off that overhang. That was probably the scariest moment of the entire blizzard for me personally.
Eventually power was restored, people were allowed to drive, and news became reliable and regular again and only then did we truly fathom the massiveness of the catastrophe that had befallen our state. We watched the news and sat in silence as they began showing scenes of the thousands of cars left abandoned on Rt.95, making plowing tedious at best. In fact, I believe they eventually just began plowing cars into the banks along with the snow. Stories came in of people trapped away from home in bars and restaurants for up to a week unable to get home. The magnitude of this blizzard is probably unfathomable to most younger folks as it is hard to conceive how we could be caught so off guard by the storm and how so many people could have been stranded. I mean, it was a lot of snow for sure, but not like it should have been so crippling, even with the hurricane force winds. It was an absolute disaster and given today’s weather forecasting systems and instant worldwide communications thanks to smartphones and the internet, probably could not ever happen again. We can certainly experience that much snow again, and winds like that again, but we’d likely not ever experience such widespread pandemonium and bringing the state to a standstill for an entire week.
As I reflect on history, I think back to the stories I’ve read: the Chicago fire, the San Francisco earthquake, and even the Boston molasses disaster. And while the Blizzard of ’78 is thankfully not on a similar scale as those events, it was a historical event and it is somewhat amazing that I was an active part of it. The funny thing is, it didn’t feel that way during it; it was cool, it was neat, it was funny, and it was definitely painfully disrupting. But it never felt “historical”, never felt like the sort of thing you’d be telling tales about 40+ years later. It just felt like life, interrupted. Today’s memories of this old Wolff and the week Rhode Island took a time out.