COLUMBUS (WCMH) - The weather on January 25, 1978, hardly suggested a winter storm of historic proportions was coming by early the next day. The temperature rose to 41 degrees in Columbus, and 0.65 inch of rain fell. At midnight the mercury still stood at 40 degrees, with light rain falling in a 10-15 mph breeze.
Yet computer models gave forecasters reason to predict that a major winter storm would develop in the northern Gulf of Mexico and head north through eastern Tennessee and Kentucky. Still, the prospect of a such a dramatic change in the weather was hard to comprehend.
The storm deepened explosively between midnight and 4:00 a.m. on January 26, tracking from Portsmouth and Cleveland, with the barometric pressure tumbling to a record-low Category 3 hurricane level of 28.47 inches at Columbus. Rain turned to windswept snow as the temperature plummeted to the single digits. The Buckeye State was caught in the throes of a full-fledged Arctic blizzard.
Ron Kelly, who joined Franklin County Engineer's Office in 1977 as a plow driver, described the hardships of trying to clear roads made impassable by winds approaching 70 mph. He says no storm since comes close by comparison.
"By the time I got through my route and came back, that road was completely covered over. Now you're spending all your time back over that same road trying to keep it clear."
Travel had nearly come to a standstill at dawn. Ohio was blanketed by 4 to 12 inches of new snow, with heavier amounts in the northwest, but that was on top of a considerable amount of snow: 28 inches had fallen earlier in the month in Columbus--already a new record for any month. The wind peaked at 69 mph, and more than 100 mph over Lake Erie.
Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes declared a state of emergency, urging residents to stay home. The mountainous drifts were historic--10 to 25 feet in many places, reaching the second story of homes in rural areas.
Nearly 6,000 people were stranded on Ohio roads. The combination of extreme cold and windblown snow caused the deaths of 51 Ohioans--nearly half died in their stranded vehicles.
The storm damage exceeded $100 million. Governor Rhodes called the blizzard the "greatest disaster in Ohio history."
An estimated 175,000 residents lost electricity for several days, and schools and businesses would remain shuttered for a week or more. More than 5,000 Ohio National Guard airmen and soldiers were ordered into action by Governor James A. Rhodes to clear 31,000 miles of roadway, and to attend to trapped victims in their cars and homes without heat or food during an 11-day stint (source: Ohio National Guard).
The Ohio National Guard placed the number of Ohioans rescued at more than 10,000 by truck, and another 2,700 were picked up by Ohio Air National Guard helicopter flights. A total of 800 vehicles and 45 helicopters were made available for rescues and assistance.
Bitterly cold weather in the wake of the Great Blizzard of '78 compounded the unprecedented hardships created by Ohio's Storm of the Century. Total storm damage was places at nearly $210 million statewide.