Saint John marks 30 years since Groundhog Gale

Three decades ago, a fierce and unexpected storm known as the Groundhog Day Gale battered Saint John.

Three decades ago, a fierce and unexpected storm known as the Groundhog Day Gale battered Saint John.

Many Saint Johners remember the gale as if it were yesterday. Most people – at least the ones old enough to recall – can tell you where they were and what they were doing when the storm hit on Feb. 2, 1976.

Nobody saw it coming, but it brought hurricane-force winds that hammered the city and knocked out power. Some parts of the city were in the dark for seven days.

A picture published in the newspaper the next day shows telephone poles blown nearly horizontal, hanging from their sagging wires.

The storm hit in the days before dramatic television storm-watch reports and those ubiquitous warnings that make hurricanes such a serious business.

The storm worked its way up the Maine coast and blew through communities in southwestern New Brunswick with winds stronger than 140 kilometres per/hour. Reports from the time show that salt spray from the Bay of Fundy was found on homes more than 10 kilometres inland.

The tourism website seesaintjohn.com describes the storm and it's aftermath this way: "With the high wind, power poles snapped like matchsticks and roofs were torn off. A new high rise building was being constructed on King Street, sheets of plywood used to cover the window spaces, were ripped off. They flew through the air and slammed into cars and other buildings causing great damage."

"The winds pushed saltwater from both the Harbour and Courtenay Bay over low lying areas throughout the city," the site adds. "Both the Courtenay Bay Causeway and the Marsh Creek bridge were in danger of being washed away from the pounding of the huge waves, as well, a large barge in Courtenay Bay broke from its moorings and was driven against the bank of the causeway. The Saint John Throughway, which was then still under construction was opened to traffic as it was the only available exit from the City to the east."

Frank Leger had to take his wife Prissy to hospital that day after she went into labour with their fourth child. Rebecca was delivered safely while the hospital ran on auxiliary power.

"It was wild. I can recall waiting for her while she was in the labour room – in those days there was no question about husbands being in the labour room – in the general hospital parking lot, the windows were popping in the cars. The barometric pressure was such that this was the state of affairs."

After the baby was born, Leger walked through the storm to put the baby birth announcement in the Telegraph Journal only to find the office closed. He then walked all the way back to the hospital to his wife. "I did a very stupid thing," he said, laughing. "I risked life and limb. But I was of the opinion that having a baby was news, and it had to get in the paper right away."

The couple even considered calling their fourth daughter Gail – after the storm – but they had already agreed on Rebecca. "Well we would have, but she likely never would have forgiven us," said Frank.

There was one fatality from the storm. A 30-year-old man was killed when his fishing shack was blown across the ice on the Kennebecasis River.