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  • Writer's pictureDon Wilding

Memories of the '78 Storm

On Feb. 5, 1978, Karen McLean found herself sitting on the front steps of Henry Beston’s “Fo’castle,” the seaside retreat where his book, The Outermost House, took shape.

McLean didn’t stay long. Within a few hours, she was driving off-Cape, and a weather system of historic proportions was moving in.

The storm, now remembered as “The Blizzard of ’78,” hit the following night. By the morning of Feb. 7, Beston’s house, several other cottages, and the Coast Guard Beach bathhouse and parking lot, were all claimed by the monstrous high tides generated by the storm.

McLean had a photograph of herself at Beston’s house from that day. It’s probably the last photograph ever taken of the house, which was dedicated as a National Literary Landmark in 1964.

Henry Lind, who was Eastham’s Natural Resources Officer at the time, took a ride in one of the town’s four-wheel drive vehicles down that beach on Feb. 6.

“As I was driving back, it was getting to be close to the high tide point; it was probably an hour or two before high tide,” Lind recalled in a 2008 interview. “One of the washovers that we had been experiencing was starting to see some sea water coming through from the ocean side into the marsh.”

From that moment on, the spit, also known as Coast Guard Beach, would never be the same.

“I probably was the last person that drove back in off that trail before the storm,” Lind recalled. “I made through that one spot, and looked back, and two or three more waves put several feet of water through that area, and it was no longer passable.”

While the signs of potential disaster were certainly there, an historic weather event didn’t seem to be in the cards. Only a few Boston meteorologists, including former Eastham resident Bob Copeland, were sounding the alarm for something out of the ordinary.

“We were down there the Sunday before and there was no hint,” the late Conrad Nobili, who lost his “Butterfly House” beach camp in the storm, recalled in 2000. “It was a beautiful day and it was strangely quiet.”

Strangely quiet, but even Lind knew something was up, as radio newsman Bob Seay recalled in a conversation in front of Town Hall a couple of days before the storm.

“This is what the old-timers would call a ‘weather breeder,’” Lind said. “The calm before the storm.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

While titanic waves pounded the ocean side of the Cape, Mother Nature was putting on another show over on the bay side, with water levels that reached record levels — some four feet above normal.

Rock Harbor, Wellfleet Harbor, and Commercial Street in Provincetown were all flooded. A photograph in The Provincetown Advocate showed a sea of debris, left behind by the flood water, in back of the Lobster Pot Restaurant.

Noel Beyle, the late Eastham historian and writer, saw some of the earliest damage to his bayside property.

The water had come and taken half of the cliff away. It must have gone in a good 20 feet,” Beyle recalled in a 2008 interview.

Beyle had gone out to the Outer Beach, where he took hundreds of photographs of the oceanside damage, but saw more upon his return home. The eye of the storm was passing over the Cape, leading to a temporary calm.

“I come back here and the bay was just like a mill pond — no waves, no wind, nothing,” he recalled. “That elevation, three feet, just came in and ate the cliff away.”

Originally published in the Cape Codder, Feb. 4, 2019.

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