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Weather radar was already pretty sophisticated in the late 1970s and the National Weather Service was calling for a fairly big storm — about six inches. But on Monday Feb. 6, 1978, when heavy snow did not start right away as predicted, Bostonians went about business as usual. But by mid-afternoon, snow was falling at the rate of 2 inches an hour and employers were advised to release workers early. They did. By the time commuters hit route 128, winds had picked up to over 60 mph, visibility was zero, swirling and drifting snow clogged the roads, forcing motorists to abandon their vehicles, leaving behind a wagon train of entombed cars.
Gov. Michael Dukakis declared a state of emergency, going on airwaves to say: “All people are to remain in their homes — all people must remain home – virtually every road in this state is impassable by ordinary motor vehicles at the present time.” Under threat of arrest from Boston police, people were told not to even consider driving their cars into the city. That night, 100,000 Bostonians lost power, throwing the city into darkness for a complete day. Makeshift shelters were set up all over the region. In Dedham, Cinema 1-2-3-4 opened its doors to 300 people, providing them food and a warm place to stay along with all the movies they could watch all night long.
The Cape and coastal areas were hit hardest. With the storm stalled over Martha’s Vineyard, a new moon and unusually high tides brought a series of four storm surges. Sea walls and revetments collapsed — houses filled with water, roofs were blown away. Chatham reported winds of up to 92 mph but soon lost its detection system. One survivor recalls being rescued by scuba divers but then went through shoulder high water to reach his neighbor “I took her upstairs to her drier room and we waited for scuba divers to come rescue us and took us down from a ladder.”
With so many people displaced and with snow drifting into mountainous piles, president Jimmy Carter declared a federal disaster area – sending in the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Guard and 200 soldiers from Ft. Bragg in North Carolina. One soldier told Channel 2 reporter Art Cohen he was from California and “had never seen snow before.”
Back on route 128, most people abandoned their cars, but rescue workers went vehicle to vehicle brushing off snow and peering through windows. Channel 5’s Clark Booth was there when one guy was pulled out. Booth said to him: “ You seemed reluctant to leave — were you having a good time in there?” “NO,” came the answer.
As with every storm, some people enjoyed it. Out came the cross-country skis, downhill skis and snowshoes. People were lugging children, groceries and suitcases around on sleds. But anyone with a snowmobile or attachable sled was being asked to help with emergency services to pick up people and move them to shelters or hospitals.
In all it lasted 32 hours and 42 minutes leaving more than 100 dead, 120,000 homes partially or totally destroyed, and property damage in the millions. WBZ’s veteran storm chaser Shelby Scott said, “the fascinating thing — was the spirit of the community — everyone came together helping each other out.”