Remembering the Great Blizzard of '78

Ohioans of a certain age remember January 26, 1978, the day the Great Blizzard of ’78, also known as the White Hurricane, also known as the Cleveland Superbomb, descended upon Ohio.

It was the deadliest storm in Ohio history, claiming fifty-one lives. Twenty-one people died walking from stranded cars or homes without heat and another thirteen were found dead in stranded vehicles. Phone lines went dead across parts of the state and 175,000 homes lost power. East Ohio Gas asked residential customers to keep their thermostats at 65 degrees during the day (and lower at night) to prevent widespread power outages.

When the storm began just before dawn on Thursday the temperature dropped thirty degrees in two hours and winds increased to more than 50 miles per hour. Wind chills were up to -60 degrees F with sustained winds of 40 miles an hour throughout the day. Wind gusts reached 69 miles an hour in Dayton and Columbus and 75 in Akron.  A wind gust of 82 miles an hour at Cleveland Hopkins Airport was the strongest ever measured in Cleveland. The second lowest atmospheric pressure ever recorded in the United States, apart from a tropical system, occurred as the storm passed over Cleveland.

NOAA reported:

This blizzard caused the most complete disruption of transportation ever known to Ohio. Maj. Gen. James C. Clem of the Ohio National Guard reported the immobilization of Ohio was comparable to the results of a statewide nuclear attack. Prolonged blizzard conditions created enormous snowdrifts that stopped highway and rail transportation and isolated thousands of person. Air travel was stopped for two to three days by low visibility and deep snowdrifts on runways. The almost complete immobilization of Ohio continued through Friday.

The entire length of the Ohio Turnpike was closed for the first (and only) time in its history. State workers stopped a caravan of nearly seventy semi-trucks in Van Wert by plowing a fifteen-foot pile of snow across Route 30. It was feared the trucks would become stuck in the twenty-foot snow drifts. Angry truckers hunkered down at the YMCA as food shortages — bread, eggs, and milk — were reported across the state. NOAA reported that “a Red Cross unit in Springfield bought eighty thousand loaves of bread from a bakery, and National Guard helicopters delivered them to six area cities, where they were given away, two loaves per family.”

By Thursday evening President Jimmy Carter had declared a federal disaster and dispatched federal troops to the state armed with arctic gear and heavy equipment. Governor James Rhodes called up five thousand members of the National Guard to active duty and “forty-five National Guard helicopters flew twenty-seven hundred missions across Ohio and rescued thousands of stranded persons.”

During the Arctic Vortex that hit the Midwest in 2014, WTAM talk radio host Bob Frantz posted on his Facebook page, “Man, we’re a bunch of wusses! You think this little cold snap is something to be worried about? You haven’t seen ANYTHING…until you’ve experienced the Blizzard of ’78!” which set off a torrent of  comments from folks who reminisced — almost fondly — about the 1978 storm in Cleveland:

  • I remember it well. Worst storm I’ve ever personally experienced, or probably ever will. The thing I remember most is not the snow (which was considerably heavy) but the wind. It made my house shake, and for a while, I seriously wondered if it was going to blow the house down. Anyone who was around then will never forget that storm.
  • But men were men back then! And like you said Bob, bunch of wusses! I work outside 8-10 hrs a day in this stuff….. but when it gets below 10 degrees — trust me it is cold!
  • We had snow piled as high as our roof from the snow from the driveway. (We had a front loader tractor.) Chardon people used snowmobiles to go everywhere.
  • I was a teen delivering the Cleveland Press on foot during that storm. As I remember 76-78 were all bad winters.
  • Bob, I was delivering the [Plain Dealer] back then…. It was tough for two weeks but everyone got their papers.
  • I remember my sister and I shoveling the drive, so my dad could pull in when he got home from work. We would have to take breaks every 10 minutes and go back into the house to warm up. Our mom would give us hot chocolate and we drank it by the door. It took us hours to get that drive done. But we did it.
  • Junior in high school, younger brother had the Plain Dealer route, came back after twenty minutes and said he couldn’t make it. Our step-dad had to go out with him and break a path so he could finish the route.
  • I was 15. We owned a grocery store about 5 blocks from home. Dad made me walk there and open it!! Yeah no biggy!! Dress for it!!
  • I was 13, lived in Lakewood on Clifton, my next door neighbors and I got some other friends together and made a killing knocking on doors and shoveling driveways before snowplows could arrive.

I have a photo of my childhood home buried beneath the snow drifts during the Blizzard of ’78 in Bedford, Ohio, about fifteen miles southeast of Cleveland. I was in 8th grade that year and my dad (like most of the other dads on our street) climbed up on the roof, risking life and limb to remove the snow drift, fearful the roof would cave in from the weight of the snow (and we would all die before we knew what hit us).

Schools were closed Thursday and Friday as well as the following Monday and Tuesday as crews worked to clear the roads. Instead of hunkering down in the house we relished the days off and spent them playing in the snow — sled riding, hiking through the woods, and trudging back and forth between the homes of friends, oblivious to the danger. In fact, on one of the days, I remember walking a mile and a half with my girlfriends to a local shopping center because we were bored with hanging around our houses. The sidewalks weren’t plowed so we walked on the massive snow piles left on the sides of the roads by the snowplows.

Of course, we were too young to comprehend the seriousness of the situation. The Blizzard of ’78 left enormous carnage in its wake across the entire Northeast, including at least a 100 fatalities, 4,500 people injured, and damage that cost upward of $520 million ($1.95 billion in today’s dollars).