1977: The Great May Ice Storm
Here in New England, and in particular, Cape Cod, you’re never completely safe from the grip of winter woes until, oh, maybe, Memorial Day.
For those of you who remember 1977, you know what I’m talking about.
It was on May 8-9 of 1977 that the unthinkable happened — it snowed … and sleeted … and was icy. Over the bridge, Providence, R.I. was slapped by seven inches of snow, and Worcester was whacked with 20. By this time, the leaves were already out on the trees, and with the heavy wet, snowfall, led to many snapped limbs — and power outages. Over 100,000 customers across southern New England lost power in this storm.
How did this happen? Well, when two low pressure areas collide just south of the Cape, and cold air is being pulled down from Canada in the process, they often combine into one and “bomb out,” as weather folk like to say.
Here on the Cape, the snowflakes weren’t nearly as abundant, but high winds, driving rain and sleet made it seem more like mid-winter than May.
My friend, the late Nan Turner Waldron, used to stay at Henry Beston’s “Outermost House” on Eastham’s Coast Guard Beach for at least a couple of weeks every year between 1961 and 1977. She would often share her stories of life in “the Fo’castle” with me, and “The Great May Ice Storm,” as she liked to call this one, was a favorite.
As a Massachusetts Audubon Society member, she was able to rent out the literary shrine every summer, but when Wallace Bailey, the director at Mass. Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary, offered the opportunity to stay there in the spring, she jumped at the chance.
Then came May 8, and right away, Nan, who would chronicle this and many of her other experiences in her 1991 book, “Journey to Outermost House,” knew this wasn’t going to be the kind of day that one would expect after the calendar had reached Page 5.
“Something’s wrong,” she said to her husband, Ted, who had come out for a visit that day. “There’s a very high tide, and a big wind, and we are nowhere near high tide.”
Nan wasn’t the only one who noticed the abnormal elemental activity: “The day before, we noticed that there was not a bird, nothing.”
Nan would often say that “when you live that close to the sea, you better know what the sea is saying.” She didn’t stick around. “Fifteen years of times spent in that house had taught me that I should not wait to get out,” she wrote in her book.
The next day, when the storm departed, Nan returned, and had to wade in water up to her shoulders to get back into the house. She noted that, since the house was built in 1925, it was the first time that sea water had reached the floor of the house.
“Ice, sleet, rain high winds, and 20-foot waves tore open six gaps in the dunes,” she wrote. Of course, the water went well beyond the floor of the house the following February, when the famous “Blizzard of 1978” swept away “the Fo’castle” forever.
So, even if, in the coming weeks, you’re swatting away bugs, getting a sunburn, or even daring to take an early dip in the ocean, don’t ever forget about 1977. You just never know when another “Great May Ice Storm” will strike.