The Blizzard of ’78 Effect

By: Patrick Maguire

Book Chapter: Human-to-Human Service

Posted: 12/5/2009

Welcome to my site. Thank you to the folks at the Boston Globe Magazine for featuring my blog and book project. Thanks also to Jamie, Ken and the team at Toro restaurant (one of the best in Boston) for accomodating the photo shoot.

 It is fitting that as I’m typing this post we are experiencing the first snowfall of the year here in Boston. There’s always a sense of anticipation and excitement leading up to the first snow. It looks like we’ll get off easy this time with just a dusting. That has not always been the case…

 Excerpt from the Human-to-Human Service chapter of the book:

 It shouldn’t take a snowstorm for people to be nice to each other. The Blizzard of ’78 was the mother of all winter storms. Many New Englanders have vivid memories of that massive blizzard that brought life to a screeching halt. At least 100 people died, many were injured, and thousands of homes were destroyed. Ironically, the enduring legacy of the storm was not the devastation left in its wake, but the power of the human condition under duress. I was a senior in high school at the time, and here are a few things I remember:

  • No school for a week.
  • No electricity or heat.
  • Huge snow banks and snow tunnels.
  • Candlelight and great fires in the fireplace.
  • Listening to a 9-volt transistor radio for updates.
  • Shoveling off the roof of our house so it wouldn’t collapse.
  • Fallen trees on power lines.
  • Cars banned from the roads for days.
  • Taking a sled to the supermarket for groceries.
  • Cooking on a BBQ grill in the driveway.
  • The cars snowed in on the major highways and the people in them who died.
  • Deployment of The National Guard.
  • Shoveling, shoveling, and more shoveling.
  • The beauty and excitement of almost three feet of snow.

 Despite the terrible loss of life and property, most people who lived through The Blizzard of ’78 reminisce about how friendly and helpful people were to each other, and how everyone pulled together to get through the storm and its aftermath. It was a great week. We spoke to our neighbors, shoveled each other out; we retrieved and delivered groceries by sleds; we said hello to strangers, and they actually said hello back. The storm truly galvanized the entire region.

From The Boston Globe Thursday, February 9, 1978:

By Mike Barnicle:

Storms do strange things: they destroy natural boundaries and human life and, in the wake of danger, they build a sense of community and sharing related directly to the number of inches on the ground. Two inches and people still snarl at each other, 2 feet and all men are brothers.

The Blizzard of ’78 was a great human equalizer that rendered everyone powerless, and left many people stranded. Job titles, net worth, egos and diplomas didn’t matter. Everyone was equally helpless for a few days. Some people relied on total strangers for survival, and some people died, regardless of their social status. The storm fostered a camaraderie and cooperation nearly everyone embraced. Eventually, the strong bond faded as ‘reality’ crept back into our daily lives.

I thought about the transition from a galvanized, inclusive community back to ‘normalcy’ a lot after The Blizzard of ’78. It troubled me that people could be so good to each other when the playing field was level and then gradually revert back to their old ways. I know it’s idealistic to expect people to act exactly the same way that they do during extraordinary times, but it sure would be nice if they could come close.

It shouldn’t take extreme weather, music, food, religion, tragedy, babies, dogs, hardship, death, sports, natural disasters, holidays, smoke breaks, or an attack on our country to break down the barriers between people, and to remind us how amazing, fragile, and short life really is. Unfortunately it does.

Great human equalizers, like natural disasters, make people want to reach out and take care of each other, and they can restore your faith in humanity. They make total strangers realize that they have a lot in common, and that we truly are “all in this together.” I’ve been referring to this phenomenon as “The Blizzard of ’78 Effect” ever since the big storm.

As I got deeper into the research for my book, I expanded the scope far beyond the customer-server relationship. The concept of Human-to-Human Service emerged, which is about co-existing, communicating, interacting, and helping fellow human beings. I believe that we have an obligation and responsibility to be responsive to each other every day. It shouldn’t take a snowstorm to remind us.

Do you have any examples of The Blizzard of ’78 Effect?

7 Responses to “The Blizzard of ’78 Effect”

  1. I don’t remember the blizzard of ’78 but I lived in Winthrop for 17 years and remember some big floods that destroyed everything that people may have been unfortunate enough to have stored in their basement. I lost all of my yearbooks from high school, all my college photos (maybe some of them should have been destroyed!), and priceless heart-felt letters written to me by my beloved father who is no longer around. While it was heartbreaking to deal with the loss of all of my personal things, going outside in the close-knit neighborhood and sharing stories with neighbors suffering the same loss was a sort of healing process. As upset as I was with the devastation, the feeling of everyone coming together was one I loved and wished would happen more frequently and not just during a time of tragedy. “I’m going to the store, do you need anything?” “I’m putting on a pot of tea, come in for a minute.” “Do you need a ride to work?” On any given Monday, no one would ever say these things. Sure, we’d all wave, say hello, smile, but the real closeness always came right after something that had “The Blizzard of ’78 Effect.”

  2. nina casali says:

    I do remember the Blizzard of ’78 and you are right it was a great equalizer, we were all in the same boat. Your neighbors all of a sudden spoke to you as if we were old friends. I have worked in the service industry in various positions since I was 13, even went to school to study retailing. I have found customers have gotten progressively worse over the years, verbally abusive, demeaning sales staff, yelling, swearing etc. I know customer is king and they do pay our salaries but we should not have to put up with the abuse heaped on us daily. With the economy being what it is has not helped and then there is the attitude that anybody can work in retail after all “it isn’t brain surgery”.
    Thanks fo your blog and now I know there is someone out there looking out for us!!!

  3. FairLady says:

    I clearly remember the blizzard of ’78. I was a sophomore in college and had two weeks of classes off. What am amazing time!
    What I remember the most was listening to the stories about all the people that were stranded in their cars on 128. How so many people banded together to survive the elements. I felt lucky to be safe in my dorm with all my friends:)

  4. Bill says:

    I was only seven during the Blizzard of ’78, but I can still remember it. We lived on the second floor of a triple-decker on Roseclair St in Dorchester. I remember looking out the parlor window and seeing huge snowbanks all the way down the street and not being able to wait to climb them. My sisters and I would go downstairs and play king of the mountain and the neighbors would yell “Get off my car!” Then we’d head over to the Russell Schoolyard and dig snow tunnels for hours on end.

    My most vivid memory though might be of the apartment above us, which was empty. The former tenants had moved out and decided to break some windows just for the hell of it. So my mother and sisters would have to go upstairs a few times a day to shovel snow out through the apartment windows. Of course I tried to help out, but my little pale and shovel from the beach wasn’t really making a dent in the snowdrifts filling the room. I can still remember that. Too funny.

  5. Rod Hoffman says:

    I was in school during the Blizzard and so my direct memories, too, are of goofing off and being really pissed when a few cars had the temerity to interfere with my cross-country skiing through Harvard Square.

    However, some years later, when I moved to Melrose, I heard of an example of the ‘Reverse Blizzard of ’78 Effect’.

    A long-time resident pointed out a storefront in a residential neighborhood. He said that it had been, for many years, a convenience store. New owner’s took over in the late ’70s. When the Blizzard hit, the store jacked up its prices for bread and milk, etc. and the locals had no choice but to pay.

    After the Blizzard, they had a choice. They chose not to patronize the store. Nobody did. The convenience store went out of business. Now the storefront houses a flower shop.

  6. Ginger D says:

    I remember the Blizzard of ’78. I was 12 years old. No school in Lowell for about 2 weeks! The snow drifts covered all of the firts floor windows and doors of my house.
    My mother sent me out in waist-deep snow to dig out her prized Canadian hemlock tree. Nevermind that I would get lost in the whiteout and die, save the darned tree! BTW- a plow came by later that week and took out the hemlock in one sweep.
    I was sent, door to door, to all of our elderly neighbors, shoveling them out and running to the corner store for milk, bread and cigarettes (remember, this was the 70’s).
    Ah, community!

  7. Michelle says:

    I do not remember that blizzard, but know what you’re talking about. In the St. Louis area the past couple of winters – there have been ice storms, the kind where you think a shotgun is going off, but it was actually a tree uprooting or large limbs snapping off because of the heavy ice laid upon them. A lot of residents went w/o power for up to 2 weeks. Our entire family slept close to each other in our living room. Our bedrooms were all on the side of the house where the trees were and we were afraid large limbs or even entire trees would crash into our house in the middle of the night. Wow, huh? Most stores ran out of generators and the canisters that went with them. A lot of people would be outside talking to neighbors making sure they’re okay, people w/ fireplaces would be inviting ones w/o over for the entire time until their power came back on. Would see alot of people outside amazed and dazed at the devastation of trees, homes, and the solitude from the quietness of no cars passing by. Strangers would be talking to each other on the streets of how each other were doing and if they had their power back on yet: Strangers. Most times you don’t even get a “hello” and at that time you got a full conversation. I will never forget that!

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