The Long Island Blizzard of 1978: 40 Years of Memories

What started as “gentle snowflakes” ended up being a paralyzing storm that made an indelible impression on many Long Islanders.

Forty years ago Tuesday, Nadine Caiati Wahl found herself gazing out the main door of Bloomingdale’s in Garden City, watching heavy snow “coming down and coming down.”

Stranded at the department store with around a dozen colleagues, she saw no cars on the road and no people walking, as the snow, courtesy of the raging Blizzard of ’78, was “too heavy, too thick, too deep.”

“Lots of us remember” that storm, said Wahl, 63, who grew up in Westbury. “How could you forget?”

Right around midnight on Feb. 6, the “first gentle snowflakes began falling,” Newsday reported. Snowfall became more intense, whipped about much of the time by 50 to 60 mph winds, and not letting up until the afternoon of the following day.

When all was said and done, Long Island MacArthur Airport recorded 25.9 inches of snow — to this day the second-highest amount for a storm since records started being kept in 1963, according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center. (The top snow-producer was the 2013 storm of Feb. 8 to 9, which dropped 27.8 inches.)

What’s more, Long Islanders, 40 years ago, had just dug out from 17 inches of snow, delivered unexpectedly a little more than two weeks earlier.

Long Island was, indeed, paralyzed, “by the worst winter storm in 30 years and the second in 18 days,” Newsday reported, with roadways buried, motorists trapped, and some “3,000 cars abandoned in a wilderness of unplowed highways.”

“We can keep up with the snow, but the wind is killing us,” one Brookhaven Town plow driver told Newsday, describing it as the worst snow he had ever seen. As for visibility — “there is none,” another driver said.

Travelers were stranded as area airports closed for close to 48 hours. Some 2,000 Long Islanders found shelter in emergency refuge centers, Newsday reported, with others like Wahl stranded at their workplaces.

Three storm-related deaths were reported in Newsday, as well as the collapse of 11 homes as a result of high tides and flooding.

Property damage from tidal flooding and beach erosion amounted to more than $40 million for New York coastal areas, according to a storm report issued at the time by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Coming in the days before The Weather Channel, not to mention texting, Twitter, Instagram posting, and alerts popping up on smartphones, the blizzard appears to be especially evocative for those Long Islanders who rode it out.

At the time, Norm Dvoskin, retired News 12 Long Island meteorologist, was still employed as a product/environmental researcher by Grumman, then the Island’s largest private employer.

Dvoskin said his main recollection was actually the storm’s aftermath.

Living in a large garden apartment complex in Woodbury, he said up until then his neighbors tended to go their separate ways, and “we didn’t even know each other.”

However, as they started digging cars out, some sentiment of shared circumstances must have kicked in.

That’s as someone first brought out some snacks, then food, then wine, he said, as the occasion turned into a party.

“We all had something in common — we were all stuck,” Dvoskin said. Such adversity “brings out the best in people.”

Eric Gabriel, now 51 and living in San Diego, experienced it through the eyes of an 11-year-old, cavorting in the snow of his family’s Ronkonkoma home, and reveling in the “sheer bliss” of days off from school.

“If you’re a kid, the gates to heaven opened,” said Gabriel, a writer and musician.

But he also recognizes the stresses that others went through — his father, who was snowed in alone for three days in his Oceanside office, survived on popcorn and cans of soup. And both his parents fretted, he said, over the worry that their supply of heating oil might run out, and how would they ever get it replenished?

A flock of Long Islanders had posted their own blizzard of ’78 experiences, some as recently as January, on a 2013 blog entry on LongIsland70skid.com, a site Gabriel created to honor the decade he spent on the Island, as well as to create a space where others could reminisce.

That’s where Wahl, now living in Sarasota, Fla., shared her story of hunkering down at Bloomingdale’s, where she, then assistant manager in women’s sports, and co-workers cooked meals in the store’s restaurant, slept in the furniture department’s model bedrooms, and played Atari video games.

“We had a surreal and fun time,” she said.


Blizzard of ’78, meteorologically speaking…

“There’s no question about the form of precipitation – it will be all snow,” said a spokesman for the National Weather Service, which had forecast at least 12 inches, blizzard-like conditions, drifting snow and tides two-to-four feet above normal, according to a Newsday report.

“You have the makings of a real mess,” a weather service spokesman said.

How it unfolded, according to a NOAA storm report:

-Late Feb. 5, “a weak low moved into Pennsylvania, bringing light snow.”

-Early on Feb. 6, “a secondary storm developed off the Carolina coast…intensified rapidly, moved northward to about 60 miles south of eastern Long Island.”

-It then “remained almost stationary for about 12 hours before redeveloping farther eastward.”

-“Temperatures were in the 20s and winds gusted to over 50 m.p.h. with blizzard conditions most of the 6th into the morning of the 7th.”

Top image: Long Island Expressway eastbound winds like a snake around abandoned cars and trucks on Feb. 8, 1978. Credit: Newsday / Dick Yarwood