COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Anyone who resided in Ohio during the winter of 1977-78 has stories to tell about the Blizzard of ’78.
The weather 42 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 and little wind.
The comparatively primitive computer models pointed to a developing storm in the northern Gulf of Mexico that was expected to turn north and merge with energy moving in from the Midwest.
During the night, low pressure consolidated in eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, and forecasters warned of a winter storm expected to envelop the Buckeye State before dawn.
Still, the prospect of such a dramatic change in the weather was beyond comprehension, let alone the severity of the Storm of the Century in the Ohio Valley.
(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 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.”
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 varied from 6 to 12 inches by midday overall but the southeastern counties of Ohio, with heavier amounts in the northwest; that was on top of a considerable amount of snow — 28 inches had fallen earlier in the month in a series of three storms in Columbus, already a new record for any month in city weather history.
Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes declared a state of emergency, urging residents to stay home, and mountainous drifts 10- to 25-feet high snow buried cars and the small buildings. 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 that Gov. Rhodes called the “greatest disaster in Ohio history.”