Blizzard of 1978

A woman shovels out in Manchester after the Blizzard of 1978. (JOHN LONG / December 18, 2013)

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.''