COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Anyone who resided in Ohio during the winter of 1977-78 has stories to tell about the Blizzard of ’78.
The weather 43 years ago on the eve of the great blizzard was damp and mild in an otherwise cold and snowy January that had already dumped a record total of 28 inches of snow on Columbus.
The temperature rose to 41 degrees in Columbus on Jan. 25, 1978, with a steady rain (0.65). At midnight, the mercury still hovered around 40 degrees with light rain falling and little wind.
The comparatively primitive computer models pointed to a developing storm in the Gulf of Mexico that was expected to turn north and merge with upper energy diving south from the Midwest.
During the night, low pressure consolidated in eastern Tennessee and forecasters warned of an intense winter storm expected to envelop the Buckeye State overnight. Still, the predicted dramatic change in the weather was mostly beyond comprehension.
(Photos: Ohio History Connection, NWS Wilmington)
The winter cyclone deepened explosively between midnight and 4 a.m. on Jan. 26, tracking across eastern Ohio, along a line from Portsmouth to Cleveland. The barometric pressure in Columbus tumbled to an all-time record low of 28.46 inches (963.8 millibars) — comparable to a Category 3 hurricane. The lowest pressure in the state was 28.28 inches (957.7 millibars) in Cleveland.
The wind peaked at 69 mph in Columbus and 82 mph in Cleveland. A stranded ore carrier in Lake Erie recorded sustained winds of 86 mph, and a gust of 111 mph (National Weather Service, Wilmington, Ohio).
Ron Kelley, who joined the Franklin County Engineer’s Office in June 1977 as a plow driver, described the hardships of trying to clear roads made impassable by vicious winds gusting to 70 mph.
“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.”
Counties handled snow operations individually in 1978, rather than the centralized approach employed by the Ohio Department of Transportation, with state-of-the-art radio communications and computer tracking of snow plows that employ high-technology equipment.
After the rain turned to windswept snow, temperatures plummeted into the single digits. The Buckeye State was caught in the icy throes of a full-fledged Arctic blizzard before dawn. Travel nearly came to a standstill.
The snowfall in Ohio varied from 6 to 12 inches, with a little less in the southeastern counties, and some heavier totals in the northwest. This was on top of a considerable amount of snow — 28 inches had fallen earlier in the month in three separate storms, already a snowfall record for any month in local weather history.
Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes declared a state of emergency, urging residents to stay home. Mountainous drifts 10 to 25 feet high completely snow buried cars and covered small outbuildings.
Even worse, nearly 6,000 people were stranded on Ohio roads. The combination of extreme cold and windblown snow caused the deaths of 51 Ohioans, and nearly half of the victims died while stranded in vehicles.
An estimated 175,000 residents lost electricity for several days, and most schools and businesses were shuttered for a week or more.
More than 5,000 national guardsmen were ordered into action by Gov. Rhodes to help clear 31,000 miles of Ohio roadway and attend to victims trapped in their cars and homes.
The Ohio Army National Guard rescued more than 10,000 Ohioans by truck, Ohio Air National Guard helicopter flights flew 2,700 missions to assist stranded motorists and deliver medical supplies.
A total of 800 vehicles and 45 helicopters were made available for rescues and assistance.
The bitterly cold weather in the wake of the Great Blizzard of ’78 compounded unprecedented hardships created by Ohio’s Storm of the Century.
Total storm damage was placed at nearly $210 million statewide, in a storm Gov. Rhodes labeled the “greatest disaster in Ohio history.”