Night of the blizzard

The city sheltered 3,700, volunteers and city personnel made 198 prescription runs

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Snow was in the forecast and that was good news. At least I thought so.

That was 40 years ago today, and I had a passion for cross-country skiing. As soon as there was enough, I was off for a loop around Seaview Golf Course – now Harborlights – or a longer trek on the Goddard Park horse trails.

So I loaded the skis into our station wagon, figuring I could stop at the golf course once the paper was off the press and on my way home. Little did anyone know what we were in for.

The Beacon offices were located at 132 Meadow Street, not far from Centerville Road in Apponaug. We also had an offset press so the papers were printed on the premises. Drivers would pick up their papers and drop them off to our carriers and we’d make a run to the Apponaug Post Office once the papers were addressed and bundled by carrier route.

It started snowing about midday and so, as to make the front page as current as possible, I walked over to Centerville Road to get a picture. Traffic was backed up from Apponaug Four Corners to Toll Gate Road. Cars were skidding off the road. People were walking in the street. Windblown snow was sticking to everything.

I took a couple of photos and rushed back to process them in the darkroom. It was evident if we were going to get out a paper, we’d best step up production. Everyone understood the urgency. Besides, they wanted to see if they could get home. We were off the presses by 4:30. The snow was coming down harder. Traffic was at a standstill at the four corners. Plows couldn’t have gotten through. The papers were sitting in bundles ready to be picked up, but they wouldn’t leave the building for almost another week. Rhode Island was sliding to a halt.

Some employees ventured out, hoping to make it home. They didn’t get far. They chose to walk but many stayed. They made calls to their families. People started drifting in from Route 95 where they had abandoned their cars. Some just wanted to warm up and use the phone before returning to the blizzard and their trek home. Others were headed to South County and knew they wouldn’t make it. Maybe we had 20 people including our own employees planning to wait out the storm in our offices. The consensus was that, by morning, everything would be under control. State and city crews would have cleared roads and our visitors would be on their way. What dreamers.

By now it was after 6 p.m. and I was getting hungry. So were others.

I remembered my skis. I grabbed a couple of canvas mail sacks and ventured into the storm. Fortunately, we still had power and so did Apponaug. The wind had picked up and it was even snowing harder. I set off on Meadow Street for the Cumberland Farms on Post Road. The store was lit up; the attendant said she had no way of getting home so she figured she might as well stay open. There was still bread on the shelves and milk in the case. I filled up the bags, adding peanut butter, jelly, cookies and a couple of cans of coffee.

Outside I clamped into my skis and headed back to the office, arriving in a sweat. I was encouraged by my foray. If I’d made it to the Cumberland Farms and back, I shouldn’t have any trouble reaching the police station and city hall. I grabbed several rolls of film, my camera and a notebook and returned to my skis.

Not until last week, when I was talking to Joe Walsh, who was mayor then, did I remember another drama playing out only a few blocks away. Joe learned that a bus filled with Winman students could go no further than the Arco service station that used to be at the corner of Toll Gate and Centerville Roads. The kids had been there for several hours. Miraculously, the McDonald’s in Greenwood was still open. Joe placed a whopping order and then called police, who were rescuing snowbound commuters on Route 95 by snowmobile. An officer was radioed and Joe joined him to deliver the burgers to the bus. When he turned to leave, the officer had left on another call.

Joe trudged through the snow back to City Hall.

On my way to City Hall I crossed paths with John Paquet, Lockwood assistant principal, who was guiding two Winman students through the blizzard to their homes in Crestwood.

By the time I got to City Hall, Joe was on another mission. The community room in the police station had been transformed into emergency management headquarters. Communication was by radio and landlines. In addition to privately owned snowmobiles – the city didn’t own any – and 4-wheel drive vehicles, heavy equipment including front-end loaders were pulled into service.

Barbara Vigliotti (later to become DeCesare), director of human services, was focused on meeting the needs of the elderly, those on medication and the status of nursing homes. With temperatures dropping and winds of 70 MPH concerns mounted for neighborhoods that had lost power and those trapped in their cars who had run out of fuel.

I found Joe and Everett Carlow of the Fire Department in Central Baptist Church across from City Hall. It had been quickly converted into a shelter and people were staking out where they were going to spend the night. For some reason the stage in the church hall was a big attraction. Kids in the group all wanted to sleep on stage. Joe and Everett were in the kitchen over the stove. They were heating up beef stew. It was nothing fancy. It was straight from the can. Joe can cook canned stew. It was good. Police had gained access to several supermarkets and were bringing in supplies by snowmobile and 4-wheel drive vehicles.

In a letter to Warwick residents in a special section the Beacon published two weeks after the blizzard, Joe spelled out some of the numbers from that night on Feb. 6, 1978 and the days that followed. The city sheltered 3,700 people who volunteers and police, firefighters and other city personnel had saved from stranded cars and homes without power; that core of workers and volunteers had made 198 prescription runs; 60 food deliveries and transported more than 250 people to hospitals in addition to 600 nurses and doctors who couldn’t otherwise get to their jobs.

The magnitude of the storm and its impact was not on people’s minds. There was no sense this was going to be an historic storm that would be talked about for decades to follow. Rather, the attention was focused on the next crisis. Making people in shelters comfortable was not a priority when it was not known how many were waiting to be rescued from their cars, without medication or freezing in homes that had lost power.

We split up. I don’t recall where Joe went – probably back to the hastily assembled headquarters at police headquarters. I teamed up with a volunteer – I wish I could remember who – who had a 4-wheel drive vehicle and set off for Greenwood to find an elderly woman. The neighborhood was without power and her daughter, who had been trying to reach her by phone, was frantic. What was a three-minute ride took us 15. Finding the road in whiteout conditions was tricky. Utility poles and trees were guides, as well as the darkened houses on both sides of the road. McDonalds was closed, without power, but it was a beacon that we were headed in the right direction.

Somehow we found the house. I didn’t bother with the skis. The two of us pushed through knee-deep drifts to the front door and started pounding, hoping to be heard over the howling wind. I tried the handle. It was locked. What do we do now?

We went in opposite directions to windows and shone flashlights into the house. Soon we saw a moving form and the door opened to reveal a woman wrapped in a blanket. She was spry, pleased to have someone checking up on her and was doing just fine…thank you.

We headed back to the police station. The snow showed no sign of subsiding. It would continue through that night and all the following day. Twenty-eight inches was the official total at Green Airport. It was double that in Woonsocket. Drifts were six and eight feet, obscuring all signs of abandoned cars and blocking house doors.

Major arteries were the priority. If even one lane was open that was considered a victory and a means of at least getting within proximity of those needing help. I volunteered to drive along with a snow plow. It was slow going. The truck could handle it, but visibility was limited to about 30 feet. After that it was a white curtain. The cab was a warm cocoon in the midst of the swirling storm. The wind was relentless. By early morning, the sky was brightening; at least a single lane was open on West Shore Road. As we swung through Conimicut, I figured it was time to call it a day. Besides, I’d run out of film.

The driver left me off at Stokes Street, barely three blocks from home. That walk was a marathon. In places I sunk up to my waist in snow. The wind and stinging snow was in my face. I knew the way, but the route was often around drifts and white mounds – buried cars.

Lights were on at home and dinner was ready to be heated up. I felt I had survived the storm. Much more was to come. There was more snow and the long process of digging out.

Reflecting on the Blizzard of 1978, Joe said it brought out the best in people. The community rallied to help one another, neighbors helped neighbors and harbored total strangers who were forced to abandon their commutes home.

He’s right. We were all in it together. Not all of us made it and we reported those tragic tales. Yet, even 40 years later, that night of Feb. 6, 1978 shines as a time when we came together.

Incidentally, my skis were where I left them in the police station. I don’t know what’s become of them. I gave them to my father for his 75th birthday. And, yes, I believe he used them just to say that he had.

I have another pair at the ready whenever there’s enough snow.

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