When I think of my ancestors living through winters in French-Canada, I realize how strong those men and women must have been. Challenging enough to live on the frontier, but to think of them doing it without modern tools, heat, food, etc., it is truly incredible. The northeast is currently getting by a blizzard of historic proportions. The last storm of this size recorded in Boston was in 2013, but the one that gets the most press, and lives strongest in our memory, is the great Blizzard of ’78. For those of us who lived through it, it was scary yet exciting; and very, very challenging. And a great example of epigenetics.
The severity of the storm was due to a confluence of circumstances that rarely occurs. The initial forecasts called for a typical nor’easter. For those who do not live in New England, a nor’easter is strong storm with very heavy precipitation and hurricane-force winds, and blizzard conditions (severe winds causing blowing snow that creates low-to-zero visibility lasting more than three hours). The names comes from the fact that the storm rides up the coast and the bands of wind and precipitation come circling around on land from the northeast. The storm was supposed to hit on Monday and last for a day.
The nor’easter reached hurricane-force winds of more than 85 miles per hour (with gusts going more than 110). It reached New England on February the evening of February 6. This was the night of a new moon, when tides are at their highest. The storm started inflicting devastating damage on coastal towns. A normal nor’easter lasts for six to twelve hours before dissipating. But this storm was anything but normal. A high pressure system had worked its way down from Canada. It trapped the storm over New England for three days. An unprecedented thirty-three hours of precipitation hammered New England. In addition, a rare vertical formation of storm clouds resulted in thundersnow, with thunder and lightning across Long Island and Southern New England, where I lived.
It hit so fast and with so little warning that many people were trapped on highways trying to get home. Cars were abandoned everywhere as people sought shelter. At times during the storm, snow was falling at a rate of 4 inches per hour. By the time it was finished, more than 27 inches fell across New England.
The cleanup took days. Roadways blocked with snow and abandoned vehicles made the work slow and difficult. Some people did not get home for days. Although the storm ended on Wednesday, it took through the rest of the week to get things cleaned up in the aftermath. I remember walking through my neighborhood, a fairly typical suburban area. Snow was piled at the corners in drifts more than 10 feet high. There was simply no place to put it.
Fortunately, nowadays weather forecasting has gotten much better. We have warnings and are able to prepare. But the effects of the storm are still felt here in New England. It is certainly a great example of epigenetics at work. People tend to overreact to storms here now. Nobody really believes that the storms will be that short. They descend on supermarkets in hoards to stock up on food as if they will be locked up for weeks. And this happens even to people who were even born in 1978, as well as those who lived nowhere near New England during that year.
This has given rise to a standing joke that is now spreading to other areas of the country: the French Toast Alert System. The joke arose because for whatever reason, the three things that get cleaned out first at the supermarket are bread, eggs, and milk (a.k.a., the ingredients one needs to make French toast). It even has its own Twitter account and Facebook page. FYI, the French Toast Alert System is supposed to remain at the Severe level through Wednesday morning. I hope you stocked up!