Posted inWeather

Why we’ll never experience a storm like the “Blizzard of ’78” again

The Blizzard of ’78 was a touchstone event for Rhode Islanders who experienced it. We were all impacted in some way, whether stuck on the highway and forced to abandon our cars, trapped at work or school for several days, or shoveling out neighbors who couldn’t open their front doors due to high snowdrifts.

We were totally unprepared for the ’78 storm and it was business as usual on a Monday morning in February when it struck. Pretty much everyone has a story about what happened next. A sophomore in high school, I walked home that day, 2-3 miles uphill (really) in my jean jacket and worn-out Adidas after waiting an hour or so in the blizzard for a bus that never came. I later made a lot of money shoveling for neighbors, so it wasn’t such a bad experience for me personally.

But here’s the thing … we’re unlikely to experience a winter storm quite the same way ever again.

No doubt, surprise weather events can still happen, and a lack of preparedness is always a possibility – witness events in Virginia a couple of weeks ago. And don’t forget the “December Debacle,” the 2007 storm that left hundreds of Providence students stuck on busses in heavy traffic for hours. But we have made significant progress in planning for these storms, resulting in far less loss of life and property. Sadly, over 100 people died as a result of the ’78 blizzard.

Here’s how things are different in 2022.

Better communication

For better or worse, we’re plugged in now more than ever. When there’s an emergency these days, you’re likely to get a slew of alerts on your cell phone. TV, radio, and the Internet warn you well before the storm hits, and you might even get an “emergency alert” phone call on a landline if you still have one.

It was a different story in ’78, back when radio stations provided the same pre-recorded weather forecast throughout the day. Cable TV was still a few years away, there was no Weather Channel, or any media alternative available at the time. Cell phones didn’t exist, even the big bulky suitcase ones you see in 80’s movies.

Better Forecasting

Weather radar, computer modeling, and satellite technology offer a much better picture for meteorologists and armchair weathercasters. There was no televised weather radar in 1978, and certainly nothing on a portable device like a cell phone that you could track yourself. And even though we love to find fault with forecasters, technology has enabled them to be far better at predicting bad weather than previously.

Better Emergency Preparedness

We all went off to school that morning in 1978, and weren’t released early until just before Noon, when several inches of snow had fallen and traffic was already at a standstill, at least in the Providence area. The plows got a late start and the rest is history.

Cars were snowed in where they stood, with several deaths reported from carbon monoxide poisoning as people sat in their cars trying to stay warm. When the snow stopped falling, cars were gridlocked, buried in snow, and had to be towed one at a time before roads could even be plowed. That’s the main reason it took so long for things to return to normal.

Better Policy

Local politicians understand that they are one poorly managed storm away from losing the next election, so good elected officials pay attention to emergencies. They go live on TV frequently, reminding us all to hunker down and wait out the storm.

Emergency planning on all levels has improved in recent years. There’s better coordination between government agencies, more communication, and modern equipment. Distance learning makes it easier for school officials to cancel classes when they might have previously been on the fence. And work-from-home options abound, so there’s going to be less traffic even in smaller storms.

As for the “Blizzard of ’22,” most everyone except essential workers trusted the experts and stayed home. Crews are working hard all weekend to clear roads and parking lots and you’ll likely be back at work and school Monday.

Meanwhile, happy sledding!