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40 Years Ago, Blizzard Of '78 Walloped Connecticut

The snow was so heavy, whipped up by gusting winds, that travel was nearly impossible. Thousands abandoned their cars. Ambulances could not pass through massive drifts, and a cohort of four-wheel drive owners were called upon by then Gov. Ella T. Grasso to aid in rescues.

Courant reporter David O. Bailey wrote: “transportation was in shambles.” The snow, he reported, made walking nearly as dangerous as driving and many sought shelter wherever they could. It has been 40 years since the Blizzard of ‘78, and some of the snow records stand.

In the days leading up to the storm, forecasters warned it could “wallop” the state, and they were right. Some areas saw as much as 2 feet of snow, driven into drifts by high winds.

Grasso declared a state of emergency and urged cars off the roads, many of which had been stuck during people’s futile attempts to get home. Businesses were told to shutter as well. Her shutdown would stand for three days, and officials at the time estimated that thousands could not get home.

Grasso, herself, got stuck on the 2 mile trip from the governor’s mansion to the command center at the state’s armory. She was forced to walk several blocks on foot.

When the two-day storm ended, at least five people had died, some of whom could not be saved by ambulances stranded in snow.

The damages cost upwards of $25 million dollars and President Jimmy Carter quickly declared Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts as federal disaster areas. More than 500 troops from Fort Hood, Texas, were mobilized to help the Connecticut National Guard.

It was the “four-wheel brigade,” citizens who owned four-wheel drive vehicles that were called upon by the governor, that were credited with saving thousands of lives by delivering medicine and reaching stranded drivers. One of these intrepid volunteers helped a man stranded for four hours in his car.

Among the many services halted by this blast of snow was mail delivery. Hospital workers were forced into double-shifts with some doctors and nurses unable to leave, and others unable to make it in.

The headlines were big and bold from the days during and after the storm. On Feb.7, 1978, during the peak of the storm, the headline read: “Blizzard Deals State Mighty Blow.”

Few would leave their homes. A Hartford package store owner was one of the few to open business, the Courant reported. He told one reporter: “I slept on the floor. If I could’ve gotten home I wouldn’t be here right now.” He ended up doing $118 of business in the Daily Numbers. At the popular downtown bar Mad Murphy’s, 15 employees rode out the storm on sofas.

The storm was so powerful, UConn closed its Storrs campus for the first time in 50 years. It has subsequently closed for more recent storms.

Looking back, the storm does not rank as the state’s worst, but remains a constant bit of legend for those who lived through it.

Do you have memories of the blizzard? Share with reporter Nicholas Rondinone via email at nrondinone@courant.com. »

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