Super Storm’s Legacy: Blizzard altered life and landscape, but not people’s desire to live by the sea By Lane Lambert - 02/03/2008 The Patriot Ledger
HULL - Walk around Gunrock Avenue, packed tight with one-and two-story shingled homes overlooking a bright blue sweep of Massachusetts Bay, and you wonder if there had ever been a Blizzard of ’78.
Yet reminders exist here and in coastal spots elsewhere on the South Shore, as well as in the way emergency personnel respond to natural disasters. A short walk down the seawall there is an acre of open, gravelly ground, one of many plots bought by Hull to absorb the force of another storm.
A house once stood here, until the triple whammy of hurricane winds, ocean flooding and three-foot snowfalls knocked it and others down. The huge storm, which raged on February 6 and 7 and dumped 27.1 inches of snow on Boston, also carved up the shore from Hull to Plymouth, trimming bluffs and leveling landmark sand dunes. The blizzard spurred the creation of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and led to better communication between towns and the state when future storms struck.
‘‘That storm was the major change in how we respond today,’’ said Peter Judge, a Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency spokesman.
Yet one of its chief legacies, its effect on people’s attitudes, has faded over time. In the months and years thereafter, the storm turned those who recalled being immobilized by the storm into ‘‘inveterate panickers,’’ said Alan Earls, author of a book on the storm.
But as people have moved in and out, and as the memory has receded farther in people’s minds, so have the anxieties and preparations once automatic when a big storm rolled in. Also, many coastal areas wracked by the blizzard have been rebuilt, despite the dangers.
‘‘People have relaxed,’’ said Florence McCarthy, who lives in one of the dozen or so homes on Gunrock Avenue.
‘A continuous battle’
South Shore residents today seldom give state emergency policies a moment’s thought. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, created seven months after the Blizzard of ’78 in large part to address problems that occurred during the storm, likes it that way.
‘‘That blizzard set a precedent,’’ said Edward Hurley, a retired Scituate fire chief. ‘‘After that, you knew when you called the state, they would come through with resources.’’
But in places like Gunrock Avenue in Hull and the Ship Pond neighborhood in Plymouth, residents who endured the blizzard need only look out their doors to see what changed.
On Gunrock, one tract of open ground stretches from the seawall down to a pair of modest frame homes on Atlantic Avenue. On the adjoining space, one larger summer house stands halfway between the wall and road, now raised on a foundation high enough to keep it above almost any flood waters.
In the Ship Pond area of south Plymouth, retired store owner Robert Roy and his across-the-road neighbor Kevin Mahoney can look down a 60-foot coastal bluff to see the effects of the blizzard and subsequent storms.
Roy owned a house on the bluff in 1978. He remembers coming home to find his basement flooded and the ground floor stripped of furniture. That surge took out a piece of the bluff, but he says the 1991 ‘‘no-name’’ storm was even worse, pounding away as much as 20 feet of the steep ground that looks out to Cape Cod Bay.
Duxbury Beach was flattened and resculpted, too, though not once and for all, according to Al Krahmer, a retired marketing executive and trustee for the Duxbury Beach Reservation.
‘‘We lost some dunes in ’78 and 1991 and last year, too,’’ he said. ‘‘But we rebuilt them in better shape than they were before.’’ With a barrier beach like in Duxbury, ‘‘you build snow fences, you plant beach grass,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a continuous battle.’’
Are we ready?
Preparing for the next major blizzard is a continuous exercise. Beyond ecological measures to protect coastlines, a major part of that effort is keeping local residents informed and aware of what Mother Nature can do.
Thanks to cell phones, cable TV, the Internet and ever-more-precise computer forecasting, state officials and meteorologists say warnings can be issued sooner and circulated faster. In a wired world, ‘‘it’s so much easier now,’’ said Judge, the spokesman for the state’s emergency management agency.
Supermarket shelves tend to empty faster than they did prior to 1978, even when a lesser storm is on the way, said Earls, who wrote ‘‘Greater Boston’s Blizzard of 1978,’’ a book published by Arcadia.
Yet three decades of population growth and economic development have also made the challenge of future emergencies tougher.
Hundreds of thousands more people live in Plymouth and Norfolk counties, among a million more people now living in the state. Traffic volume on some highways is twice or three times what it was in 1978. And construction in vulnerable places like Gunrock goes on.
The forgetting set in early. Soon after Plymouth recovered from the blizzard, then-conservation commissioner Malcolm McGregor and others tried to persuade the town’s elected leaders to rezone stretches of White Horse beach in Manomet as off-limits for building, like the lots in Gunrock.
McGregor, now a Massachusetts Maritime Academy professor, said owners could have rebuilt as much as a quarter-mile inland, ‘‘still with an ocean view.’’
‘‘But no one wanted to move off the beach, so it never worked out,’’ McGregor said recently.
There, as in dozens of places on the South Shore, beach houses are more numerous and often as densely built as ever. The lure of water and view keeps people there, betting a storm like the Blizzard of ’78 happens only once in a lifetime.
McCarthy is more than willing to take that bet. So is Plymouth resident Robert Roy. He and his wife are across the street from the Ship Pond bluff now, but in close range for a superstorm - a prospect he acknowledges as he surveys the open water of Cape Cod Bay from the bluff edge.
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