Michael Dukakis on the memories and lessons that stick with him from the Blizzard of 1978

"You've never seen anything like this."

(From left)  Michael Goldman, with former Massachusetts transportation secretary Fred Salvucci, and former Governor Michael Dukakis during the Blizzard of 1978.   (Photo courtesy of Michael Goldman)   Library Tag 04262007
From left, advisor Michael Goldman with former Massachusetts transportation secretary Fred Salvucci, and former Governor Michael Dukakis during the Blizzard of 1978. –Photo courtesy of Michael Goldman, file

Michael Dukakis says there’s a good reason why governors are so cautious in the run-up to major snowstorms. After all, he was at the center of it all when the worst one hit the Northeast, exactly 40 years ago Tuesday.

As the snow started to fall that Feb. 6 evening, the then-Massachusetts governor says he was coincidentally appearing on a monthly call-in segment he did on a local radio station, accompanied by a few staff members. According to Dukakis, the area had just gotten a significant snowstorm about a week before.

“There was still a lot of snow around,” he told Boston.com in an interview. “And then to have 32 inches dumped on top of it really was a killer.”

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Literally so. The storm, which hit Boston with more than 27 inches of snow and left other areas with more than three feet, left 99 people dead. The blizzard paralyzed southeastern New England with towering snowdrifts, impassable highways, and devastating coastal flooding. It was during the call-in show that Dukakis said the first reports began to trickle in.

“Reports began coming in that folks, particularly in Revere, were up on the second story of their houses wondering whether or not they were going to survive this thing,” he said, recalling panicked residents on their roofs and porches in coastal areas.

The now-84-year-old former governor said he began directing the response while still on the radio. When the segment finished, his director of community affairs, Lou Murray, drove him home before venturing back through the storm to his own home in Lowell.

“Lou drove me back to Brookline and headed back to Lowell, and somehow managed to make it,” Dukakis said. “It must have taken three hours to get there.”

The next day, Dukakis said a command center was set up at the old Metropolitan District Commission building in downtown Boston, where he and other officials rode out the blizzard, trying to gather as much information and coordinate a response as best they could.

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“That’s basically where I operated for the rest of the storm,” Dukakis said. “I’d get back home late at night and repeat the process again [the next day].”

Dukakis declared a travel ban, which remained in place for a week — though not before thousands of drivers on roads across the state became stranded, most infamously on Route 128. The jarring images of the aftermath remain vivid in his mind. The Wednesday morning after the 32-hour storm, Dukakis took a helicopter to survey the damage.

“We flew down over the South Shore — Cohasset, Scituate — and of course over 128,” he said. “I mean, you’ve never seen anything like this. It was as if some giant had picked up all those little houses along the coastline and just flung them all over the place. It was really unbelievable.”

“We had people who somehow survived in their cars for 24 hours, sitting out there on 128. If you wanna know why governors these days say, ‘Stay home,’ that’s what it’s all about,” Dukakis said.

Despite complaints from employers and restless residents, Dukakis said the travel ban was clearly the right call in the end. In one case, he did recall a Burlington resident who got a bit stir crazy and took off driving on I-93 while the ban was still in effect. The man was eventually stopped by the National Guard, who forced him to leave his car on the side of the highway and walk home several miles, according to Dukakis.

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“I used to say if I had done it one more day, I would’ve been impeached,” he joked.

Despite the fact that forecasting technology in 1978 was not even close to as advanced as it is today, Dukakis credits the people around for being ready and quick to deploy resources when the storm hit. The former governor particularly praised his Secretary of Public Safety Charles Barry, who he said was obsessed with emergency preparedness and had just recently briefed the cabinet on a revised response plan.

“Charlie was a remarkable guy,” Dukakis said. “When I tell you he was obsessed with emergency planning, I’m not kidding you — fortunately, because I gotta tell you, the rest of us weren’t.”

The former governor also credits his “superb team at the T,” who during the driving ban had to deal with a huge surge in ridership. Even amid the unprecedented conditions, the MBTA was able to continue service on all four lines, thanks to around-the-clock plowing and some 400 people who responded to the agency’s call for snow-shoveling at a rate of $3-an-hour, as The Boston Globe reported at the time.

Juxtaposed to the MBTA’s performance during the record-breaking winter of 2015, Dukakis says the transit agency did a “fabulous job” during the otherwise catastrophic 1978 storm.

“Because I had banned all automobile traffic, the T had to perform superbly well,” he said. “Otherwise we would have been totally paralyzed. And it did.”

Despite helping lead Massachusetts’ miraculous economic recovery in the 1980s, Dukakis says the ’78 snowfall was a singular challenge during his 12 years in office.

“It was unique, and, from an emergency standpoint, it was the biggest thing I ever had to deal with,” he said.

“On the other hand, taking a state that was an economic basket case and turning it into something that could put people to work, that was a much biggest challenge over a much longer period of time,” he said. “But in terms of an immediate emergency situation, it was certainly the toughest thing I ever had to do.”

Gov. Michael Dukakis and his wife, Kitty, survey storm damage at the Point Shirley beach in Winthrop on Feb. 12, 1978. —Joe Runci / The Boston Globe