'You have to remember, in those days, forecasting was not what it is today. It's improved enormously since then.'
(TNS) - It was supposed to be just another nor'easter, a little storm by New England standards, 10-12 inches at best, but what started on Monday, Feb. 6, 1978 turned into the stuff that legends are made of and it remains, 40 years later, the storm that all other storms are measured by.
"You have to remember, in those days, forecasting was not what it is today," said Michael Dukakis, who was a first term governor in 1978. "It's improved enormously since then."
For those of you too young to remember, the day started out mild, but before nightfall, a weak storm that had formed off the coast of South Carolina ran smack up against an arctic cold front and a weirdly strong band of high pressure over Canada and turned into a kind of perfect winter storm that stalled over New England for almost 36 hours.
"It didn't help that we'd had a 10-incher a week or 10 days earlier," Dukakis said. "Then we had 32 inches come down in a few days.
Dukakis was on air for his monthly appearance with WBZ talk radio host David Brudnoy when he started getting calls about the seriousness of the storm.
The Set Up
Marblehead resident Ed Bell was about five miles away from Dukakis when the snow started to fly at 10 a.m. The veteran newsman was news director at WBZ Radio where meteorologists Don Kent and Bruce Schwoegler, two of the best in the industry, were forecasting.
"We knew we had a bad blizzard coming," said Bell, seated in Starbucks on a drizzly Monday morning. "But I don't think anybody realized we would be hit as hard as we were."
Nonetheless, by luck and by circumstance, Dukakis was ready.
About 10 days before the blizzard, Dukakis's Secretary of Public Safety Charlie Barry, came to him with a new emergency management plan.
"Charlie was obsessed with the importance of emergency planning," Dukakis said. "Which was lucky because I wasn't."
Dukakis said he had a fairly young staff. At 52, Barry, a kid from Southie who rose through the ranks of the Police Department before being tapped for service by Dukakis, was the old man of the group. Barry asked for 30 minutes of the next cabinet meeting to go over the new plan and Dukakis readily admits he tried to put him off.
"But you could never put Charlie off," he said. "So he laid it all out in great detail. That was a few days before the blizzard. Thanks to Charlie Barry, we did a pretty decent job handling it."
Dukakis said Barry's plan included everything from handling looters to delivering hot meals to shut-ins to putting the National Guard to work clearing roads of snow and traffic, and they utilized it all.
"I'd get calls about looting and he'd say 'it's already under control,'" Dukakis said.
Dukakis said another thing he did right was putting the National Guard under Barry. In those days, the Guard was "always kind of dangling around untethered," he said. His move to give Barry jurisdiction "paid off in spades" when the blizzard hit.
"They played a hugely important roll," Dukakis added.
Back at the Station
Bell said as the storm built, he realized his station was also playing an important part in keeping people informed.
"People weren't just listening to the news, they were depending on us for updates," he said.
In 1978, WBZ's format included both music and news, but for the duration of the storm, the music was suspended.
"Only the storm center staff was there," Bell said. "The regular staff couldn't get in."
Reporters made their way out into the blizzard while Bell fielded phone calls from the outside and ran the news desk.
"People called in, everyone had a story," he said.
The station became a clearinghouse of information. Bell said they'd get calls from people who were low on fuel or in need of food and they would connect them with people who could help.
"I remember a lady who had a medical emergency and they couldn't get up her street," Bell said. "We gave them another street and told her on what corner to meet the ambulance. We were the messengers between house and the ambulance."
The first report from a staffer came from a reporter who had made his way to Route 128, which had become a wasteland of buried vehicles, some abandoned, some not. Bell said the reporter described walking along at rooftop level and the only visible signs of actual cars were antennas sticking out of the snow.
While Dukakis's family was safely ensconced walking distance from his office in the State House, Bell's wife Barbara was home in Salem with two little girls. He said he was lucky, "she'd been married to a newsman long enough to know the drill."
At the first hint of serious trouble station protocol was to book rooms at the Ramada Inn next door, which Bell did. He and his handful of colleagues would spend the rest of the week catching a few hours sleep when they could, rinsing clothes in the sink and working.
In Salem, Barbara was having a totally different experience meeting with all the neighbors, who were all pitching in to help each other out.
"She couldn't drive because the roads were closed so a neighbor came by with a sled and said 'I'm going to the grocery store, what do you need?'" Bell said. "In one sense, I was in the eye of the storm being at this big news station, but on the other hand, I missed out on the whole neighborhood thing."
Bell said once the snow started to fall heavily, around 1 p.m. Monday, it seemed like every hour it just got worse. It was rapidly burying New England, coming down as fast as two-inches an hour in places.
People were trapped in their cars on highways, where some died of carbon monoxide poisoning. An oil tanker, "The Good Hope" issued a mayday call out of Salem Harbor. The "Can Do" a 42-foot Coast Guard cutter went out for the rescue, but was beaten by the storm. All five crew members were lost.
On the South Shore and Cape Ann, homes were being ripped from their foundations by a high tide exacerbated by a full moon.
Dukakis closed schools and the roads except for plowing and emergencies and urged residents to check on neighbors and help each other out. He also appeared on television every day at 3 p.m. for a week, always wearing a sweater, telling people what they could and couldn't do and offering assurance. The sweater would become his trademark.
"I just happened to be a sweater guy," he said. "I certainly wasn't going to wear a shirt and tie in a blizzard. For six months after the storm, I didn't make a speech after which someone didn't come up and give me a sweater ... I still have some of them."
When the sun finally shone on Wednesday morning, both Bell and Dukakis, independent of each other, went up in helicopters for a look around.
"Because I was stuck inside, I couldn't get a sense of the dimensions of the storm," Bell said.
Both said they were struck by the devastation on the South Shore.
"It was like a giant hand had just picked up houses and flung them all over the place," Dukakis said.
"We saw the (Good Hope) aground, houses buried in snow where you could just see the rooftop and road after road after road unplowed," Bell said. "I think in my neighborhood, the National Guard didn't show up until Saturday."
Roads and schools re-opened 5-7 days later, depending on where you lived.
"If I hadn't lifted the traffic ban after seven days, I would have been impeached," Dukakis said with a wry laugh. "I had a great transportation group though."
Dukakis said reason he could enforce the travel ban in the first was that the trains continued to run throughout the storm.
According to Dukakis, Robert Kiley, who was MBTA chief executive at the time, kept the trains running 24 hours a day to stay ahead of the drifting snow and he hired 300 guys, gave them each a shovel and paid them $5 an hour to keep the tracks clear.
"It was real high tech stuff," Dukakis said.
Dukakis was up for re-election the following November and lost the Democratic primary to Edward King. He said William Bulger, who was first elected Senate president in '78 claimed the reason he lost was due to the traffic ban.
"It kept husbands and wives in the house too long together and they took it out on me," Dukakis said.
Getting back to normal
Eventually, some five days later, the regular WBZ staff began cycling in and relieving the storm team.
"We got to go home, get reacquainted with our families, hear all their stories and decompress," Bell said.
Which was just in time.
Bell said by the fifth day or so, the hotel was starting to run out of food.
"On our last day, we had three meals of shrimp," he said with a laugh. "It might sound good, but we were all done."
In his 50 year career as a newsman, Bell said there are five or 10 stories that stand out for him "and the Blizzard of 78 is right up there. It's right up top."
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