The Blizzard of 1978
Seacoast SAD, February 15, 1978
The big blizzard of '78 has finally passed, leaving in its wake tons of debris, ten foot drifts, flooded homes and a calamitous situation along the entire New England Seacoast.
Most of those evacuated at the peak of the storm have returned home to begin the massive cleanup which a storm of this size entails. Hundreds of residents sustained automobile damage through flooding, with many folks finding their cars blocks away from where they last parked.
The statistics tell the story. Boston's Logan Airport totaled 27 inches of snow on Tuesday, Seacoast accumulation ranged from 15 to 24 inches, with drifts reaching heights of ten to fifteen feet and more. Wind velocity was measured as high as 80 miles per hour at the peak of the storm. Tides, because of the full moon, peaked at 14 feet above normal, the cause of most of the major area flooding.
The immediate Seacoast area was the hardest hit, with many Hampton and Rye Beach residents evacuated amidst five foot tides along their streets. Plum Island residents were evacuated also by the National Guard. We had a chance to interview some Hampton and Salisbury residents. The following is an eyewitness account of the evacuation proceedings.
Charles and Marge Starkey of Kings View Village gave us this account of the disaster.
Charles was plowing snow all night Monday and Marge and her 10 year old son Jamie, alone in their apartment, went to bed when the electricity went off, about 10:30. Charles returned about 8:00 a.m. and realizing the situation attempted to get Marge and Jamie out. Their four-wheel drive truck made it as far as Ocean Blvd. and then got stuck. Unable to move they watched water gush over the sea wall throwing stones and debris along with it. Charles walked back, soaked to the waist in ice cold water, to call the fire department. When the firemen arrived, they carried Marge and Jamie, by then terrified over their backs to the safety of their truck. From the fire engine they were transferred to a school bus and taken to the shelter set up in the Hampton Junior High. It wasn't until that afternoon that Charles was picked up and taken to the shelter.
"I couldn't believe what some of those guys were doing, those Guardsmen were rescuing people in water up to their waists. I live at the end of Winnacunnet Road and we left because there was no electricity or heat and we were hungry. Those Guardsmen were really great." - Jason Hammer
"We left Babcock Ave. which is next to the firehouse, around 9:30 - 10:00 Tuesday because we had our car submerged during the last storm. That was the real reason why we left. It cost nearly $400 to get it straightened out last time and I couldn't stand to look out the window and see the water over the seats again. The lowest part of our street was five feet under water last night (Monday night) and I still have an aunt over there in the Bell Regis Hotel and that's got water through the first floor, now it's 2:00 and we've been waiting for two and a half hours." "There's rocks and cars all over the place down there. We called our neighbor down there and she said that the water was just under the door and that was before high tide, I'm sure there's water in the apartment by now." - Steve Valcke
"We were taken out of the Sun & Surf and we've been here for about an hour and a half. It is really something to see… all kinds of disasters. When we went out this morning the water was coming down the street like a river. The house just behind us collapsed. There were cars on top of each other… unreal, boulders and rocks in the road, furniture and trash cans floating around, doors were torn off, windows popped out…" "I've never seen such a mess." "The water coming up out of the sea wall was really something to see." "I've lived here 19 years in Hampton and I've never seen anything like it. We lost lights from 8:00 to 3:00, we looked out of the window and there was a blue flash, then the lights went out… I hope I never see anything like this again, that house that collapsed was just incredible. As soon as this is over I'm moving inland, this is the second time in a month that we've been flooded." - Doug Call
South of the border, the situation at Salisbury Beach can best be described as a mess. All streets and highways are in fine condition for traveling, but the damage caused by the great blizzard is still being assessed. The oceanfront midway is impassable, strewn with lumber , debris, and remnants of amusements, signs and barstools.
Hardest hit on the Oceanfront was the 5 O'Clock Club, which must be termed a total disaster. The entire front of the nightclub was ripped from the pilings which supported it, causing a total collapse of the building, with a salvage crew already trying to rescue anything salvageable from the ruined building.
Further down toward the south end, much of the State parking lot is gone, a victim of the pounding waves. Many oceanfront dwellings hang by a thread, waiting to fall into the ocean, if not secured soon. Many Salisbury Beach dwellers were evacuated from their homes and made comfortable at the Star of the Sea church. Sight seekers are urged to stay away from the beach until clean up work is begun on the center. Throughout the week, people entering the beach have been stopped by State and local law officials and asked to show proof of residence before gaining admittance to the beach. Only residents and property owners are allowed access to the devastated area. Parts of Salisbury Beach were without electricity for a day and a half, with Mass. electric trucks hampered by the flooding which occurred on Beach Road and Route 286, unable to reach the beach to start repairs.
The situation is slowly returning to normal, but no-one can guess when clean-up work might be completed, so great is the task ahead.
Fortunately, the storm took few lives, which offers us some consolation in the wake of the devastation. It will be many weeks before many of us can return to our normal style of living, and we hope that federal money is forthcoming to aid our devastated area.
Although the storm provided a grim situation for all, our stoic New England upbringing kept us from complaining, unless absolutely necessary, and most people were able to keep their senses of humor, badly needed in such trying times.
Thanks must be given to all the people who were out helping their neighbors in the storm. Applause must be given to all who endangered their own lives to rescue others under trying conditions.
Special thanks to all the local police and fire departments, the National Guard, the people who cleared the roads, the local radio personnel, who kept us up to date on the blizzard and everyone else who helped the Seacoast residents make it through this disaster. Your help was greatly appreciated!
Listen my children and you shall hear…
By I. M. Wette
South of Chicago lives a fat and sassy granddaughter who is not much more than one. Someday if Jennifer asks me, I will tell her of her grandparents' troubles during the winter hurricane that blasted the seacoast. Probably I'll tell her even without request; grandfathers have rights.
Suddenly, Jennifer, about mid-morning of Tuesday, February 7, your Gram and I realized that the house had become an island. Wild waves were breaking over the seawall at Hampton's North Beach, pouring down the road, and sweeping on both sides towards the marshes beyond. The sky was dark, the snow was heavy, and the rushing water looked black and cold.
A boy named David was living next door with his parents, Dave and Jill, and his little sister, Julie. David was worried about his black kitten, Pepper, who had found a way to creep under the house and wouldn't come out. By and by, as the water got deeper, we decided to wade over to his house to see if we could help them, because grandparents are wiser than anyone else. That is why, we told ourselves, but the truth is we felt better with them because they were younger.
We had to break through a drift to get out the door and then we plunged into that icy water holding hands because that helps when things are scary, and finally made it to their house. Dave shouted to a truck with a snowplow on front and a big pile of sand on the back. We all scrambled out. We sat with the driver and so did Julie. Everybody else rode on the top of the sand out in the cold. We felt bad about that, but did what we were told. Sometimes older folks have to mind - granddaughters always should.
The truck took us to a schoolbus by Bicentennial Park and we sat there a long time admiring the view. Every once in awhile, a firetruck or other truck would bring more rescued to the bus. One girl had a whole armful of Siamese cats and she passed them out for people to hold. A woman had been on a boat fastened to a truck, but the tow rope broke. But everyone was happy to be there, particularly when we could see the waves rolling over the wall and across the road and under the wheels.
Right at the height of the tide, the waves were coming so high a pretty girl near us started looking for the emergency exit in case the buss tipped over. But it didn't, and when the bus was full, it started up High Street. Just beyond the marshes, at the apartments, a cluster of people were waving and cheering. Maybe we were famous for a minute, or maybe they were cheering because the water didn't reach them.
I'll tell you this, we were mixed up. Most everyone was mixed up as though the waves had washed around our heads. Things had changed so fast. There were so many things to worry about like thermostats, and did you leave the oven on, and would you have a place to come back to, and when. People's minds were still mixed up days later. What was nice was the unmixed-up people who looked after all the mixed-ups.
We stayed at Hampton Junior High School for a few hours and people swapped stories and worries. There were sandwiches, donuts, milk and coffee, and nothing but kind words and help. One announcement said that more wet people would be arriving so if anyone could make arrangements for the night, it would be best. We decided that if we could find a more private place to suck on our peppermint candy and pop the pills that grandparents take, we'd do it.
So I called Lamie's and they said "O.K." The school promised transportation but in that storm that might mean a long wait. So we sat by the door and looked wretched. When folks went out to cars, we'd shiver, and Gram would give weak wails when someone looked promising. Reverend James Barclay succumbed to our charms and he and his son drove us through the storm. When he left us with a smile, which for some odd reason is the way everyone left us off, he said, 'Go take hot showers.'
When we got to our room and got dried out, we began to be a little less mixed up. Pow-wows are called for in time of panic and we agreed that though the price might devastate our checkbook, this was the time to celebrate our 34th through our 36th wedding anniversaries which had somehow been missed. The principal dampener to this was, we had run out of peppermint candy.
This needn't have worried us at Lamie's where they know all the fine tricks of New England hospitality. When we dined by candlelight, our waitress whispered, "Martinis are almost as good as peppermint candy". She knew what she was talking about.
The inn was full that night and the next day we heard sad stories of misfortunes. We didn't know if we were 'misfortunate' or not. We wondered how high the water came in the house, and what would be damaged. We knew that David would be worried about Pepper. We heard an elegant lady say, "I'm worried about my knitting and fine scissors in the back of my flooded car." We were all worried about the ordinary things that we love.
Thursday afternoon, through the kindness of a friend, we went back to the house and everything was safe; the furnace was heating, the hot water was hot, and the floor through some miracle was dry. We didn't stay because our car wasn't fixed and we were low on groceries. Our friend took us to an apartment on the main beach and we became temporary neighbors of Jim and Peggy Fitzpatrick who had been flooded out of their house also. They run a grocery, 'The Lighthouse', which was open for business. Something nice should be said for all the convenient community stores that stay open along our beaches in the winter and when times are troubling.
When the sun came out Friday morning, we were anxious to get home - particularly because we were wearing the same clothes we had on Tuesday. A young man drove us back to North Beach and we were home again. We were so much luckier than many, many others.