February 6: The “Blizzard of ’78” Takes Connecticut by Storm


Today in 1978,  Connecticans went to work well aware that snow –possibly even heavy snow –  was predicted,  if  a storm developing off the North Carolina Coast fully lived up to its “impressive potential.” But the snow that was supposed to have begun falling during the night had not materialized, nor had the predicted storm  actually registered on the  weather service’s tracking map.  So many believed the state  might dodge the anticipated storm altogether, or, that it  would produce significantly  less than the up-to-a-foot-of-snow predicted.  They were in for a surprise,

The Hartford Courant’s masthead forecast for the day before the storm called for nighttime snow which did not materialize, perhaps minimizing public expectations about the impending storm.
Digging out stranded vehicles in Hartford. Arman G. Hatsian. Hartford Courant

The snowstorm arrived suddenly, as a full-forced blizzard late in the morning with snowfall at times exceeding three inches per hour and  wind gusts of  over 50 mph. Traffic was almost instantly paralyzed across the state as snow-covered roads and white-out visibility made movement all but impossible. Responding to the blizzard conditions, businesses, factories and schools closed early, which further complicated the growing crisis. Many who tried to get home found themselves stranded in cars or forced to seek refuge  in nearby hotels, emergency shelters, homes, and office buildings. Roads literally became obstacle courses of stalled, dented, and  abandoned vehicles. I-95 in Fairfield County was reduced to a single lane of barely moving traffic. In New London, the Gold Star Memorial bridge over the Thames River was shut down altogether.  For the first time in over40 years, mail carriers across the state were unable to deliver the mail. Governor Ella Grasso, trying to reach the emergency command post at the state armory from the governor’s residence two miles away, also was stranded, and had to walk the final mile to the armory through blizzard-like conditions.

By day’s end, Grasso was calling  for all state residents with four-wheel-drive vehicles to report to the nearest state police barracks to help rescue stranded passengers. At 9:15pm, she declared a state of emergency, ordering all roads closed to any vehicles not engaged in cleanup or assisting with emergency storm efforts.

UCONN students made the most of the storm – diving from dorm windows into the snowdrifts below. UCONN Library Archives and Special Collections.

The snowfall, which in some areas of Hartford exceeded 16 inches, continued well into the next day, and the state remained shut down for three days as rescue and clean-up efforts were organized across the state. Between 75 and 100 people died during the storm, and in Hartford alone, storm damage was estimated to exceed 14 million dollars. The storm impact was particularly severe in eastern Connecticut, where the snowfall averaged from 30-36 inches. The area had suffered widespread flooding just two weeks before. Though students at the University of Connecticut in Storrs made a party of the storm, “snow-swimming” by diving in swim and birthday suits out of dorm windows into the snowdrifts below,  officials in Killingly, Plainfield, Norwich and Montville,  requested and received both federal and state aid to  assist with recovery. The federal government sent in heavy snow-removal equipment, and federal troops helped remove snow drifts up to nine feet high. Governor  Grasso visited the afflicted towns by helicopter shortly after the 30-hour snowfall ended. One resident, anticipating her visit, had stamped the words “Ella Help” into a snowbank in letters large enough to be visible  2000 feet above ground.

Grasso’s now-legendary tireless and quite-public response to the storm and its aftermath earned her extraordinary approval ratings statewide. This was a major turnaround for a governor who had previously received much criticism for her policies, and set a pattern that has since continued of visible gubernatorial leadership during statewide weather emergencies.

“Ella Help.” A message to Governor Ella Grasso into the snow so large it could be seen from her helicopter as she toured the worst-affected areas of Eastern Connecticut. WFSB Channel 3


Further Reading

Laura Smith, “The Blizzard of 1978 ‘Stops State Cold,” UCONN Library Archives and Special Collections Blog

Robert Miller, “Remembering the Big Storm” Danbury NewsTimes 

Readers Look Back on Connecticut’s Blizzard of ’78,” New Haven Register