Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Blizzard of '78

Romie and I just finished watching an account of the Blizzard of 1978 on our local PBS Station, Channel 27. Seeing that brought back memories...

Twenty-nine years ago this weekend, I was twenty years old, working full-time as a dental hygienist in New Haven, Indiana. Romie was 24 and worked second shift at Herbert E. Orr Company in Paulding. With just 2½ years of marriage under our belts, we were still trying to get on our feet financially and securely and were not yet ready to take on the challenges of parenthood. We had just purchased our house the previous summer.

I was alone in that house, following the biggest blizzard we would likely ever see in our lifetime. On Wednesday night, January 25th, I had gone to bed around 11:30 p.m., with light snow flurries falling outside, but the weather reports predicted a blizzard was on the way. When the phone rang at 1:30 a.m. and I awoke, noticed that Romie was not beside me in bed, and heard the wind howling outside, I knew something was wrong. What was wrong was that the weather reports were right.

He was calling from my parents' house, and said he wouldn't be home that night. They lived just 2½ miles east of us, on US 127, and I wondered why he was there. He'd left work to come home and only because he'd followed a snow plow out of Paulding had he even been able to make it to their house before getting stuck. I hung up and took comfort in the fact that he was safe and warm and so was I, snug in my bed and I probably wasn't going to have to go to work the next day.


By the weekend, it was clear that no one was going anywhere, including some that had already been on their way to somewhere. Cars were buried. Entire houses were buried. We were lucky we didn't lose power, so I watched TV, baked cookies, read books, visited the next-door neighbors, and took lots of naps. Not until Sunday afternoon, when Bill Spitzer, our county school superintendant, got out and about with his snowmobile, was Romie able to make it home. Snow plows didn't get down our road to plow us out until Monday.

As soon as we were able, we drove into Haviland to Fisher's Market to get a few groceries and there was a party going on there! A neighbor that lived a mile away from us was there and she was so glad to see everyone that walked in the door, she was hugging each and every one. It seemed like we were having a family reunion of sorts.

I don't remember when we finally were able to go back to work, but we did drive around and take pictures of the incredible drifts. Some were as tall as the power lines and the roofs of houses. I remember hearing that some living near us were trapped in their homes and snow had to be shoveled away before they could get out. It was an incredible time and we were lucky that we didn't suffer any hardship from it other than a few days of lost wages.

They just don't make snowstorms like they used to.

The worst winter storm in Ohio's history struck before dawn on January 26, 1978. The "Great Blizzard of '78" continued for two days and shut down transportation, schools, and business all across Ohio, for a week in some cases. According to weather historians Thomas and Jeanne Schmidlin, it was a storm that Ohioans will never forget, one that will be a legend through the 21st century.

Rain and fog the previous evening gave little indication of the impending blizzard but forecasters saw the signs. A deepening low pressure center was moving northward toward Ohio from the Gulf of Mexico. Moist tropical air flowed northward along the Atlantic coast and, most importantly, bitterly cold arctic air marched eastward from Iowa and Illinois. Forecasters at the National Weather Service saved many lives as they issued a "Blizzard Warning" for Ohio in the pre-dawn hours.

The storm that embraced Ohio was the most powerful ever known in the state. Records for low barometric pressure were set at most locations. In their book, "Thunder in the Heartland: A Chronicle of Outstanding Weather Events in Ohio," the Schmidlins report a barometer reading of 28.28 inches at Cleveland early on January 26, 1978, the lowest pressure ever recorded in Ohio and lower than observed in most hurricanes.

The "Great Blizzard of '78" swept across Ohio on winds over 70 mph and heavy snow. An ore carrier stranded in Lake Erie ice off Sandusky reported sustained winds of 86 mph and gusts to 111 mph. Winds blew down thousands of trees and miles of electric and telephone lines. Barns and signs toppled and windows were smashed by the winds. Two people died in collapsed buildings.

Hurricane-force winds drifted the powdery snow to the peaks of houses, totally covering some in drifts 20 feet high. Cars, semi-trucks, and farms buildings disappeared under the drifts. All air, rail, and highway transportation came to a halt. Ohio's major airports closed for two days. The entire length of the Ohio Turnpike was closed for the first time in history. Interstate 75 was closed for three days.

Temperatures fell to near zero with the arrival of the arctic air and remained near 10 degrees all day. The death toll rose as motorists were stranded and home heating failed. The Schmidlins report at least 22 people died outside while struggling through the blizzard. Another 13 people were found dead in stuck cars, and 13 died in unheated homes.

Governor Rhodes summoned the Ohio National Guard in the disaster. Over 5000 men and women of the Guard were pressed into long hours of operating heavy equipment to clear roads, assisting utility crews in getting to fallen wires, transporting doctors and nurses to hospitals, and rescuing stranded persons in emergencies.

Forty-five Ohio National Guard helicopters flew 2,700 missions across Ohio working around the clock for three days. They rescued thousands of stranded persons, many in dire medical emergencies. More assistance arrived after President Carter declared a federal disaster in Ohio and dispatch 300 troops from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Toledo with arctic gear, bulldozers, and fuel tankers to rescue persons in northwest Ohio.

Shortages of bread, milk, and eggs developed quickly. State police escorted food trucks from Michigan into Toledo stores. The Red Cross bought 80,000 loaves of bread in Springfield and Ohio National Guard helicopters delivered them to isolated area communities. U.S. Coast Guard cargo planes flew 30 tons of food into Cincinnati where it was distributed to low income families.

According to Jeanne Schmidlin, "Generosity of Ohioans poured out during the Blizzard, as it has in every weather disaster." Thousands of volunteers with snowmobiles and four-wheel drive vehicles risked their lives to deliver medicine to homes, take staff to hospitals, deliver Red Cross blood, and carry electric linemen to repair downed lines.

Radio stations abandoned regular programming for two days to issue storm information and serve as communication links where electricity and telephone failed and highways were blocked. Restaurants that had electricity stayed open packing food orders for electric utility workers, stranded factory workers, and police and military rescue teams.

Agricultural losses were staggering. Dead livestock, lost production, and property and equipment damage totaled $73 million. More than 12 million pounds of milk was dumped on farms the day after the blizzard when storage and transportation were not available.


Bob said...

Bread, Milk and Eggs = French Toast

The universal "it's going to snow" food!

Kylee Baumle said...

Mmmmmmm... French Toast! :-)

Carol Michel said...

I remember the blizzard. I was a student at Purdue. What a week that was!

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