Wednesday, December 3, 2014
December 3, 2014: AmericanWinters: The Blizzard of 78
[As we get closer to what some are predicting will be another rough winter, a series AmericanStudying significant winter events from our history. Leading up to a special weekend post on Pearl Harbor!]
On two interesting AmericanStudies contexts for a catastrophic storm.
The record-breaking early February nor’easter that came to be known as the Blizzard of ’78 was at the time and remains to this day one of the most destructive storms in American history. Dropping record snowfalls over much of the northeast (from New England down to Atlantic City) over a nearly two-day period, the blizzard shut down virtually all movement in the affected areas for more than a week, left more than 50 people dead (including a young child who disappeared in the snow outside of his Massachusetts home and was not found for three weeks), and produced nearly $2 billion in damages (adjusted to 2014 levels). The phrase “storm of the century” gets thrown around carelessly at times, but the uniquely extreme and potent Blizzard of 78 certainly qualifies for that designation (as, I should make clear, does the March 1993 tropical storm discussed in that linked article).
There are lots of specific details and elements to that history that are worth analyzing (such as its effects on Revere Beach), but I would also note two broader AmericanStudies contexts for the storm. For one thing, many more New England-area residents were affected than might have been because of a widespread dissatisfaction with weather forecasting in the period; metereologists had been far off on a number of storm forecasts, and so when the storm did not materialize by Monday morning many such residents went into work as usual—and were dangerously trapped, including many fatally so on the highways, when the storm hit with full force that afternoon. Such communal historical attitudes are far more difficult to trace, and thus perhaps to remember, than specific events and moments; but as the Blizzard of 78 illustrates, a general social or cultural attitude or perspective can have a drastic impact on the way those events play out, and so represents a challenging but important part of AmericanStudying any particular event.
If an attitude that affected what took place during the blizzard comprises one important way to AmericanStudy this historical moment, something that did not take place in its aftermath comprises another. After the two most destructive storms of the last decade, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, we’ve seen prominent concerts and benefits, attempts to raise funds and other support for all those individuals, communities, and regions affected by the storms. To the best of my knowledge, there were no such public performances after the Blizzard of 78—and while it would be possible to argue that such benefits simply weren’t on the radar yet at that time, there would be numerous prominent concerts and benefits over the subsequent decade, so I’m not sure if that historical contrast holds up. But if it doesn’t (and it’s certainly fair to suggest that 1984’s Band Aid was the starting point for such benefits), the question would be why there were no such benefits after the hugely destructive Blizzard of 78. In any case, it’s the kind of AmericanStudies question that can provocatively connect these different late 20th and early 21st century moments and storms.
Next AmericanWinter tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other winter events you’d highlight?