40 Years Ago the 'Blizzard' of '78 Destroyed Nauset Beach

Feb 7, 2018

As dawn broke on the morning of February 7th 1978,  I was one of the first people to gaze upon what was left of Coast Guard Beach in Eastham. After a night of howling 100 mile per hour winds, intense rain, and a 4 foot high storm surge, a landscape once familiar to me had been completely transformed. 

It was hard  for me to believe what I was seeing: the entire Nauset Spit beach area, extending almost a mile to the south, had been washed over. A half dozen of the shacks and houses that were once on it were drifting in Nauset Marsh. Some of them were torn apart, and others, like Henry Beston's famous Outermost House, floated out to sea through Nauset Inlet. Others were blown off their foundations and propelled a mile across the marsh, still intact. And even a Volkswagen Beetle lived up to its airtight reputation, seen floating in the marsh, its occupants somehow making their way to shore during the height of the storm. 

 

For those of us on the Cape, it was never the "Blizzard" of '78. As often happens with such massive storms, the tropical air sucked in off the Gulf Stream (which powers these beasts) quickly turns any snow to rain. But most surprising was the roaring torrent of ocean water I witnessed breaching the dunes, pouring into the marsh, close to the hill on which the Coast Guard station sits. In its wake, a 400 car parking lot had been shattered and washed away, and most of the extensive bathhouse complex was gone. 

After a few minutes taking it all in, I made my way back to a pay phone at the visitors center. With winds still howling and my hands shaking, I called the radio station in Orleans where I was working, to describe what I had seen.  Within minutes, I could see the first of many cars approaching. People, who most likely just heard my report, came to see for themselves. And it was just the beginning of a stream of thousands of visitors who came to witness history. I especially remember the reactions of some old Cape Codders who told me they had never seen anything like it, and that included some legendary storms like the '38 hurricane.  

Later that day after the storm, we were still in it, but in the eye of what was in essence a winter hurricane. The winds had abated, the sun was shining,and temperatures rose into the 40s. Adding to the surreal scene were the dark clouds we could see to the west, off Cape. Under them, the Blizzard of '78 was raging, while we on the Outer Cape were basking in springlike conditions. We never got the backlash of the storm that was feared, it just passed out to sea. 

Seashore Superintendent Lawrence Hadley, standing in the midst of the storm's destruction, assured everyone there would be a beach again come summer. And despite wide spread disbelief, he was right. The bathhouse and parking lot were gone, but the beach did reappear—it was just farther west and harder to get to.  

You'll often hear people refer to the Cape as being a"fragile" environment. After witnessing the storm of '78, I couldn't disagree more. The Cape is, in fact, one of the most resilient places on the planet. It is, after all, basically a massive pile of gravel and sand left here by the last glaciers. The phrase "pound sand" rings true for a reason. 

For thousands of years the arm of Cape Cod has defiantly jutted out into the Atlantic, literally asking for it. And it has gotten the worst of it, for thousands of years, and will for thousands of years to come. It's not the Cape that's fragile, it's our existence on it.