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Blizzard Stirs Memories of '78

By: David Hennessey and Martin B. Cassidy | Associated Press
Published: February 10, 2013

STAMFORD, Conn. — When Assistant Public Works Director John F. Canavan gathered his plow drivers on the morning of Feb. 6, 1978, Frank Fedeli said his boss scrambled to fit every available truck with plow blades to help clear roads during one of the most prolific blizzards in memory.

"It was like he declared martial law," said Fedeli, 60, the city's customer services supervisor. "We worked for something like 19 hours and then got a call back, and if anything the snow seemed to be picking up."

As the wind-driven snow continued to pile up, Fedeli and drivers were shuffled between using garbage trucks fitted with plow blades to clear the city's major streets and driving smaller, slower Diamond Reo trucks equipped with plows and sanders to clear side streets, he remembered.

As plowmen continued working for nearly 24 hours, high winds thwarted their efforts as the unusually fine snow blew back into streets, rendering them impassable almost as soon as they were cleared, Fedeli said.

(MORE: New Storm to Bring More Blizzard Conditions)

"Normally in a regular snowstorm a good driver will knock off a route in three and a half hours, but it was easily double that, because the ground was very slick and the truck was in low, low gear," Fedeli said. "And there was almost zero visibility."

Former area officials and those who experienced the Blizzard of 1978 — 35 years ago last Wednesday — remember the prolonged storm for its nearly two days of continuous, heavy snow which ground life to a halt.

Between the morning of Feb. 6 and the afternoon of Wednesday Feb. 8, the storm dumped 18 inches of snow in Stamford and flooded homes in parts of Shippan and the Cove late Monday. Overnight Monday into Tuesday, about 40 volunteers assisted in evacuating residents of Tupper Lane, Soundview Avenue, Weed Avenue and Chestnut Hill.

"There have been snowier winters, but that was the biggest single storm I can remember," said Pat Standaert, a city resident who has run a weather data station at the Stamford Museum & Nature Center since the 1960's. "As far as a single storm goes, that was the one."

After heavy snow began early Monday morning, Mayor Louis T. Clapes declared a state of emergency in Stamford, with wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour creating blizzard conditions, according to news reports.

Later Monday, Gov. Ella T. Grasso followed suit with her own emergency declaration, effectively closing schools and state and local offices and businesses. By late Monday, Grasso also shut down the state, issuing a ban on traffic on state and local roads, including Interstate 95 and the Merritt Parkway, for all but public safety and road clearing crews.

In some parts of the Northeast, hurricane-strength winds created towering snow drifts and abnormally high tides damaged homes and beaches.

Dan Warzoha, Greenwich's emergency management director, recalled the chaos and severity of the monstrous blizzard. Warzoha was working in the sewer division of the Greenwich Department of Public Works at the time, and also as an assistant chief with the Glenville Volunteer Fire Company.

"We knew there was going to be a snow storm, but we didn't know how bad the intensity would be," he said. "It started snowing, and it kept coming."

As the blizzard heaped snow upon Greenwich and lashed its shoreline with ferocious winds and high tides, Warzoha worked around the clock for four days straight.

He recalled the frenetic atmosphere at the firehouse, which was fully staffed and deploying trucks with seven or eight firefighters to tend to the needs of the town as conditions rapidly deteriorated.

When he wasn't working with fire crews, Warzoha was administering to some of the town's key pieces of infrastructure, which were stressed to the breaking point.

"I remember literally climbing over the barbed wire fence of the Grass Island treatment plant," he said. The road to the plant had been flooded out, and large chunks of ice from Long Island Sound were washing ashore.

Compounding the town's woes were failing pump stations in Old Greenwich and additional slabs of ice washing up in residential neighborhoods, crowding yards and blocking roads, Warzoha said.

"The Shorelands section took the biggest pasting," he said, adding that some firefighters, who were drenched with water during rescue efforts in flooded-out areas, had to be taken to the hospital with hypothermia.

The water was so high in some places that a propeller of a rescue boat suffered damage as it cut through the roof of a parked Volkswagen, Warzoha said.

(MORE: Tornado Threat Looms Across the South Sunday)

Residents also resorted to desperate means to try to extinguish fires.

"There were guys literally throwing snowballs at fires," Warzoha said.

That storm prompted the elevation of many homes in the area — homes that survived later storms because they were raised, Warzoha said.

"It was a winter hurricane," he said. "It was a pretty crazy event."

Mauro Loparco, now 76, who ran a Greenwich business collecting garbage and plowing driveways and parking lots, said in a previous interview with Greenwich Time that the 1978 blizzard was the single worst storm he could remember.

Loparco, who also remembered the Dec. 26, 1947, nor'easter that buried the town under 26.5 inches of snow, said not even that storm compared to the Blizzard of '78.

In Greenwich, police found few drivers intrepid enough to venture out in the face of Grasso's ban, but were kept busy getting doctors and nurses to and from Greenwich Hospital for their shifts and carrying those in need of medical care to the facility.

In Norwalk, an estimated 200 people were evacuated from their waterfront homes because of flooding, according to news reports.

On a statewide basis, volunteer aid during the storm was also pivotal in assisting state authorities protecting the safety of residents, said Grasso's former press secretary Larry deBear. With more than 400 owners of four-wheel-drive vehicles answering the call to patrol state highways for stranded motorists, carry patients for treatment at hospitals and other tasks.

"That was an important factor in there not being any loss of life on the state highways because Gov. Grasso was very concerned about people being stuck on the highways," deBear said. "We knew that we were in for a bad storm and we got ready and attacked the storm on a number of fronts."

The storm was also a breakthrough for the National Weather Service's forecasting skills, lending credence to the somewhat fledgling and unproven use of computer driven numerical analyses to forecast the size and track of storms, said Louis W. Uccellini, director of the National Centers for Environmental Protection, a division of the National Weather Service.

The successful forecast of the storm was considered a milestone, and helped drive technological advances that have increased the potential ability of meteorologists to track the approach of a major storm from 12 to 24 hours to nearly a week out today, Uccellini said.

"The predictability limits that were accepted for predicting major storms was still just 12 to 24 hours even into the mid-1970s," Uccellini said. "One of the reasons this storm was so intriguing to meteorologists is that it was like tripling the level of predictability that we had."

Boston

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Popular Photo

A man and woman stroll down a snow covered street in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013. The Boston area received about two feet of snow from a winter storm. A howling storm across the Northeast left the New York-to-Boston corridor shrouded in 1 to 3 feet of snow Saturday, stranding motorists on highways overnight and piling up drifts so high that some homeowners couldn't get their doors open. More than 650,000 homes and businesses were left without electricity. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

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