I was a 21 yr old student at The Ohio State University in 1978, living in an apartment that was about 600 yards from the Olentangy River. I remember that because during the Blizzard of 1978, when the roads quickly became undriveable, but before businesses realized how much shit was about to hit the fan and had a chance to close down, I struck out on foot from the back of my apt and tentatively walked across the frozen river, scrambled up its west bank into the parking lot of Krogers, and bought as much beer and food as I could possibly carry...and then retraced my steps.
My roommate had just purchased an ounce of grass the day before, so we had that exigency covered.
The snowstorm came up sort of quickly, as I remember. There was not a lot of hype by the local weathermen in the days leading up to it. On Wednesday, Jan. 25, the weather was relatively mild in fact, especially compared to what the weather during much of that winter had been like. It was around 40 degrees and rainy. If you listened to the weather report during the 6:00 PM news that night and heard nothing else, you went to bed expecting it to be a little colder the next day with some snow. It wasn't until later that night that weathermen started noticing the barometric pressure falling rapidly, and they realized a significant event was taking shape.
When it hit, boy did it deliver a blow. It's the most impressive snowstorm...indeed, a blizzard...that I had ever experienced, and nothing I have ever experienced since has measured up to it.
After reading Weatherdude's diary about the severe weather warnings for the Southern states, it made me reminisce, and I thought it would be fun to do a diary about this. I'm guessing there are many of you who lived through this blizzard as well, so there should be some good first person stories in the comments.
Here is a picture taken in Indianapolis the day after the blizzard hit. It shows how deep the drifts were, and how many motorists became stranded and simply abandoned their cars. This scene played out across the Midwest and Great Lakes region. In Michigan alone, more than 100,000 motorists abandoned their vehicles on that January 26.
One of the things I remember about that storm was all of the cars that people had simply walked away from...on freeways, major thoroughfares and city streets. The snow was very dry, and the winds were so strong and relentless that drifts quickly swallowed many of them up and completely buried them. It was a major complicating factor for many cities in their attempt to plow and reopen major arteries. Those cars had to be removed, towed or at the very least pushed aside before plows could move through and effectively remove the snow.
Less than two weeks later another, distinct Blizzard, hit the New England area. It was a double whammy for the country, and this is one of the more famous pictures taken of that storm's aftermath, in Massachusetts:
I'll try to explain, as best I can, how this blizzard was spawned, with the understanding that I am no weatherdude. I can regurgitate what I've learned from reading many of the 30 year anniversary stories that major newspapers published in 2008, as well as some of the raw numbers that made this storm such an historic and memorable event. What I realized, however, after reading all of those retrospectives, as well as the literally hundreds of reader comments that those newspaper articles engendered, is how much times have changed in the 34 years since 1978. That, in many ways, is the most fascinating angle of this story for me. 34 years go by in the blink of an eye...trust me on this, you younger whippersnappers. And the societal and technological changes that have taken place since then have, in many ways, occurred with equal rapidity.
As I said in the intro, what was to become an epic storm received very little fanfare beforehand by meteorologists during the 48 hours which preceded it. As a result, people were caught flatfooted for the most part. Much of this can be attributed to the much more crude weather forecasting tools and models that were in use then. But some of it can also be explained by putting the storm in the wider context of the months that preceded. The winter of 1977-1978 was one of the coldest and snowiest winters (and falls) of the century. Much of Michigan, for example, had average temps in the mid to low 20's during all of January. In Indiana, South Bend receive over 60 inches of snow that January, and more than 136" of snow over that winter. Fort Wayne had similar numbers, with avg temps that January of around 17 degrees.
So...when the weatherman issued a winter storm alert the day before, predicting a few inches of snow, there was a general sense of stoic resignation and "same old, same old." The weather forecasters didn't realize how bad it was going to be, and people at home had grown somewhat jaded by what had already been a long stretch of cold, snowy weather.
The storm began as two separate low pressure systems. One, coming down out of Canada (known as an "Alberta Clipper), had a huge mass of frigid arctic air that was pouring south into the upper Plains and Minnesota on the wings of a strong jet stream. The other began in East Texas and Louisiana, with an equally huge low pressure system pushing wet air from the Gulf easterly towards Georgia. It's not uncommon for two separate systems like this to unfold simultaneously during the winter. What is uncommon is for them to converge, with the upper level jet streams syncing in a way that unifies them into one massive storm system. The weather modeling tools at the time simply couldn't predict that.
By The Numbers
The raw numbers of the Blizzard of 1978 tell one tale. And it's a tale worth recounting. By the late afternoon/early evening of January 25, outposts in Indiana presaged the scope of what was about to unfold. Snow accumulation set records that would stand for more than 30 years. But it wasn't so much the amount of snow...it was the fact that it was driven by such high winds. This blizzard has been described as a "White Hurricane", and that's no exaggeration. The winds were gale force. Sustained winds in excess of 40 MPH. There were wind gusts measured in excess of 100 MPH. The snow didn't fall down, in soft, large, wet flakes. It was driven by high winds. In frigid cold. It was granular. It met the ground in a horizontal direction, and for anyone outside whose face was unprotected, it felt like you were being sandblasted instead of snowed upon.
Muskegon, Michigan, which sits upon the Lake, registered more than 30 inches of snow on Jan 26. Many, many localities were seeing snowfall in excess of 2 inches per hour, and it lasted most of a 24 hour period. But the snow, being so dry and wind driven, was fickle...some areas that were level had vast stretches of area that were left barren of snow, because the temps dropped so suddenly, while it drifted mercilessly in other areas to heights up to 25 feet. As a result of the sustained winds, the snow was not your usual "pure white" drift. It was mixed with pine needles, leaves, duff, even bark...and piled up in a dirty mix that left some houses covered up to their roofline on one side, and bereft of snow on the other.
The official estimate is that some 70 to 80 people perished in this blizzard. There were, undoubtably, many more. Ohio alone accounted for 51 of those deaths. How did they die? By the official count:
22 died while walking away from vehicles they have abandoned.
13 died inside of their stranded cars, either from exposure or carbon monoxide fumes.
13 died inside of their homes which had lost heat.
2 died when the buildings they were inside of collapsed under the stress of snow and wind.
1 died from "unspecified causes."
There were almost certainly more. Unlike today, the deaths attributed to this storm had to meet a "higher standard" of causality in order to be ascribed to the storm. There were almost certainly several others who died from heart attacks, either from shoveling snow from their driveways, or from other stress related to the storm's aftermath. Some probably died due to complications of existing health conditions that went untreated in the immediate aftermath of the storm, because of their inability to leave the house to seek medical attention.
When the storm unfolded, it unfolded with such rapidity that local weathermen were shocked. In Akron, the barometric pressure dropped so suddenly and so wildly that the instrument that recorded such swings was unable to capture the full magnitude of the pressure drop on its chart paper. It literally went off the chart, and the local weatherman had to recallibrate the instrument and load a second, double width paper in order to get an accurate reading. There were many weather stations that measured a drop in barometric pressure of 40 millibars within the period of less than 24 hours as the storm passed through. In Cleveland, Ohio, the lowest pressure recorded was 958 mb, a (non-tropical) record for the US that stood until just 2 years ago.
There have been other storms that have dropped more snow, but this particular storm was more than the sum of its parts. It wasn't just the snowfall, which was significant...it was the sustained winds, which were high, the duration of the event, the cold temps, the power outages, phone outages, snow drifts of more than 25 ft, the impact upon our transportation infrastructure at the time. It took several days to recover from these things, and required the National Guard and its, at the time, substantial assets in terms of equipment and manpower.
But as I mentioned, the really fascinating aspects of this storm or to be found on a more macro level. One can't help, when reading accounts of the event, but to wonder how such an event might play out today. Much has changed.
The technology of weather forecasting has improved dramatically over the past 34 years. A storm such as this would never catch us by surprise again. It would be endlessly hyped for 3 days in advance, if not more, in the 24 hour news cycle. In 1978 there was no 24 hour news cycle. But there were local radio stations, which had real, live staff and deejays. Today? When's the last time you scanned the AM and FM radio dials on your radio and tried to find local news? I remember many of the stations in Columbus abandoning their formats and just doing nonstop news and community service announcements. They became almost a lifeline for some people.
1978 was the dark ages before cell phones, remember. In fact, we were all still renting our land line phones from Ma Bell, whose monopoly wouldn't be broken up for another six years. Hundreds of thousands lost phone service (not to mention power) during the storm. People who got stranded on the road, or at work, or who sought shelter with strangers were in many instances unable to contact their family members to let them know they were okay. Without cell phones or texting, radio became a means of getting word out.
In reading all of the many first hand accounts posted in comments to news articles, one image that sort of took shape for me was that the almost sea change that has occurred in the generational attitudes and response to events like this. People woke up that morning, looking outside and said damn...this is going to be bad. And then they got the snow shovel started clearing the driveway, while mulling in their mind the best way to get to work. To be sure, this storm closed down a lot of business and transportation. But I can remember trudging to the grocery store on foot, and I wasn't alone. It's remarkable how many people attempted and managed to make it in to their workplace, because it was just what you did. Some of them made that effort only to find out when they got there that the business was going to close, and they had to make it back home again.
Schools did close, but there were thousands and thousands of kids that walked to school that day, because this was before buses were used to take kids in the city to their local schools, and there was no radio or TV announcements about school closures. The kids got up, Mom gave them a hot bowl of oatmeal and told them to bundle up good, and sent them off to school. Of the 70 people who died in the storm, none were kids who perished in the snow on their way to school.
Now? In Oregon, I think it is written into the state constitution that in the event of snow accumulations in excess of 1.5 inches, all private and public entities close down. 2 inches or more, and the Governor must immediately request federal disaster status. There has, all sarcasm aside, been a noticeable evolution over the past 4 decades in what is considered an acceptable risk and inconvenience factor in the face of weather events such as these. I'll just leave it at that.
So...where were you in 1978? Were you in the path of either of those two huge blizzards, or not yet a gleam in your parents' eyes? Maybe you were on of the thousands of "Blizzard Babies" born in October and November of that year?
7:19 AM PT: I want to thank everyone who contributed a story here...it's been fun reading them all and getting a sense of where people I know only by their screen names and comments over the years were at the time.