Margaret Garmon (Editor's Note: This article is provided by Dr. Thomas Schmidlin, chair of the Department of Geography at Kent State University and Jeanne Schmidlin, writer. They are the authors of "Thunder in the Heartland: A Chronicle of Outstanding Weather Events in Ohio," published in 1996 by Kent State University Press.)
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.
A greater tragedy was prevented by the early morning arrival of the blizzard and timely warning by the National Weather Service. The morning forecast caused nearly all Ohio schools to be closed so school children were not trapped in stranded busses or at schools.
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.
Ohioans who lived through the "Great Blizzard of '78" will never forget it. It is engrained as part of each person's "Ohio Experience", a legend to be told to their children and grandchildren. This storm was compared to the Blizzard of January 1918 and the New Year's Blizzard of 1864 for ferocity and disruption to everyday lives.
However, according to Thomas Schmidlin, "With our comforts of cars, electricity, and heating, we may actually be more vulnerable to these blizzards than Ohioans of the nineteenth century, who were more independent and could tolerate disruptions of a few days."
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