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01/26/2013

Remembering the Great Blizzard of 1978

Few people from these parts will forget what they were doing on January 25th 1978.  

It was on that date that a historic winter storm formed and buried much of our region with record snow and wind.  

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Dropping more than two feet of snow across portions of Indiana, Ohio and Michigan the storm was accompanied by hurricane force winds and was followed by brutal cold!  The fierce winter storm paralyzed much of the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes.  

Interstate systems were completely shut down.  The National Guard was deployed to help rescue those who were stranded in the storm and tanks were used to remove disabled semi-trucks along portions of I-65.    

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Now referred to simply as the "Great Blizzard of '78", the event was the result of a rare merger of storm systems.

Meteorologists began forecasting the potential of a major winter storm days in advance.  By the morning of Wednesday January 25th, it had become clear that this storm would become historic in proportions.  

Forecasters were watching a clipper system diving south through the Upper Midwest and a weak area of low pressure that had formed across Northern Dixie.  

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On the afternoon of the 25th, the National Weather Service in Indianapolis issued a Blizzard Warning for the entire state of Indiana!  Here's their account of the storm...

AT 345 PM EST ON JANUARY 25TH 1978...INDIANAPOLIS FORECASTERS DENNIS MCCARTHY AND HOBART REEVES ISSUED THE FIRST AND...TO THIS DAY...ONLY BLIZZARD WARNING ENCOMPASSING THE ENTIRE STATE OF INDIANA...UPGRADING THE HEAVY SNOW WARNING ISSUED NEARLY 12 HOURS PRIOR. STILL...FEW PEOPLE COULD FATHOM THE DEVASTATING IMPACT THAT THE COMING ONCE IN A GENERATION BLIZZARD WOULD HAVE ON THEIR LIVES...AS SUCH AN EPIC SNOWSTORM HAD LITTLE EQUAL IN THE CLIMATOLOGICAL RECORD FOR INDIANA.

THE STORM WAS CHARACTERIZED BY A RELATIVELY RARE MERGER OF TWO DISTINCT UPPER LEVEL WAVES...WHICH COMBINED TO CAUSE EXTREME INTENSIFICATION OF A LOW PRESSURE SYSTEM MOVING NORTH FROM THE GULF COAST INTO KENTUCKY AND OHIO. THIS STORM STILL STANDS AS THE LOWEST NON-TROPICAL SURFACE PRESSURE OBSERVED IN THE UNITED STATES.

AT THE TIME THE BLIZZARD WARNING WAS ISSUED...WINDS WERE A MERE 12 MPH. THE WINDS APPROACHED 50 MPH OR MORE BY MIDNIGHT ON THE 26TH...AND CONTINUED TO HOWL THROUGH THE MORNING OF THE 27TH. TEMPERATURES PLUMMETED TO A LOW OF ZERO DEGREES DURING THE STORM...WITH WIND CHILLS APPROACHING -50 DEGREES. SIGNIFICANT SNOWFALL LASTED FOR 31 HOURS AT INDIANAPOLIS...WITH A STORM TOTAL OF 15.5 INCHES BY THE TIME SNOWFALL STOPPED AT 202 AM EST JANUARY 27TH...ON TOP OF THE 5 INCHES THAT WAS ALREADY ON THE GROUND. VISIBILITIES REMAINED BELOW ONE QUARTER MILE FOR 25 HOURS. THE SNOWFALL WAS FOLLOWED BY CONTINUED EXTREME COLD AND HIGH WINDS ... HAMPERING RECOVERY AND RELIEF EFFORTS...AND LEAVING MUCH OF INDIANA AND THE REGION CRIPPLED FOR DAYS.

ACROSS THE MIDWEST...OVER 3 FEET OF SNOW FELL IN SOME AREAS...WITH WIND GUSTS APPROACHING 100 MPH. SNOW DRIFTED AS HIGH AS 25 FEET...BURYING HOMES...AND STOPPING A TRAIN ON THE TRACKS IN PUTNAM COUNTY.

NWS INDIANAPOLIS STAFF WERE TRAPPED IN THE OFFICE DURING THE STORM...FOR UP TO 74 HOURS. WHEN ATTEMPTING TO LEAVE...SOME FOUND THE ENGINE COMPARTMENTS OF THEIR VEHICLES PACKED WITH SNOW.

ELSEWHERE ACROSS INDIANA...OTHER NWS STAFF WERE TRAPPED AT THEIR RESPECTIVE OFFICES AS WELL...FOR UP TO THREE DAYS...BEFORE BEING RELIEVED BY COLLEAGUES ARRIVING VIA SNOWMOBILE. EVANSVILLE WAS THE FIRST OFFICE TO EXPERIENCE THE STORM...WITH SPECIALISTS WILLIAM REILLY AND RAY WILLIAMS ON DUTY FOR 18 HOURS...BEFORE BEING RELIEVED BY A NEARLY FROZEN FRANCIS BURNS...WHO WALKED AT LEAST THREE MILES IN THE TERRIBLE CONDITIONS TO REACH THE OFFICE.

THROUGHOUT THE REGION...HIGHWAYS WERE CLOGGED WITH STRANDED MOTORISTS. DOCTORS AND EMERGENCY PERSONNEL WERE FORCED TO REACH PEOPLE ON SKIS AND SNOWMOBILES. THE INDIANA GOVERNOR SENT NATIONAL GUARD TANKS ONTO INTERSTATE 65 TO REMOVE STRANDED SEMIS. INDIANA BELL WAS FORCED TO HALT ALL PHONE TRAFFIC BUT EMERGENCY CALLS. THE MAYOR OF INDIANAPOLIS MADE HIS WAY TO MAJOR MEDIA OUTLETS...TO DELIVER THE NEWS THAT THE BLIZZARD HAD COMPLETELY SHUT DOWN THE CITY AND THE STATE. AT ONE POINT...OFFICIALS WERE FORCED BY THE FEROCITY OF THE STORM TO PULL POLICE OFF THE STREETS.

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By Wednesday evening, the storm moving out of Mississippi had began to rapidly strengthen and began to phase with the Midwest low pressure system as it moved into Eastern Tennessee pulling together deep moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and an arctic air mass that was ejecting out of Canada.   

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The result was phenomenal intensification as the barometric pressure dropped to an astonishing 958 mb when the storm moved north over Cleveland Ohio.  (A record for low pressure at the time for the Central US)

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This type of rapid deepening is known as "bombogenesis" and is usually reserved for strong hurricanes.  The storm is also referred to as the "Cleveland Superbomb".

Here's a look at one of the few satellite images available of the storm captured on the morning of Thursday January 26, 1978.  

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The blizzard came on the heals of what had already been a harsh winter.  By the time January 1978 was coming to a close, snow depths of up to 40 inches was being measured across parts of Indiana and Michigan.   

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The blizzard literally buried some houses where drifts measured 10 to 20 feet for parts of the Great Lakes!

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This image was taken near Toledo, OH.  Courtesy Stephen Chang

Here locally, Kentuckiana only saw on the order of 3 to 6 inches from the blizzard with much heavier totals only a short distance to the north.  (Indianapolis picked up 15.5" officially)

However, the blizzard added insult to injury to what had already become a very harsh winter.  

Only a week before, a snowstorm dropped anywhere between 6 and 16 inches of snow across portions of Southern Indiana and North-Central Kentucky with Louisville picking up 15.7" from that storm!  

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That storm held the record as the biggest snowfall for the city until it was eclipsed by the winter storm of January 1994 (Jan. 16/17th - exactly 16 years later) when 15.9 inches fell. 

In total, January of 1978 brought an astonishing 28.4 inches of snow to Louisville and to this day holds the record for the most snowfall for any month!  

In addition to all the snow, the winter of 1977-78 brought plenty of cold too.  It was the last time the Ohio River froze over this far south.  

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For many folks, myself included, the Great Blizzard of '78 stands as the most impressive winter storm to ever strike this region.  

Meteorologist Jeremy Kappell

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Email me at jkappell@wdrb.com

 

Comments

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I remember this storm well. I was young and my older step sister had a new baby and need diapers & food for the baby. We lived in Jeffersonville, In. My younger sister & I walked several miles lifting each leg with each step as the snow was up nearly to our waist. We walked to the only open grocery several miles away and got diapers & formula & then walk to our sister home. We were exhausted, but there were no vehicles to get to the storm and she had to have the food for the baby

I was a senior in HS, had some extra time off school that winter

I remember that storm we were out of school for a month i was working just off of interstate 64

That's pretty incredible Joan. One of many stories like that for those that lived it. I was only three at the time so don't remember much. My parents told me they almost lost me in a snow drift! lol

My Dad got killed in this storm.

I walked across the Ohio River.
Tony Ohnimus

I was seven years old when this storm hit us in Bedford, Indiana. I remember seeing a National Guard tank rolling down our street. And I remember that we ran out of food, so my mother dressed me and my older sister in so many layers of clothes that we could barely move and we all made our way to my grandmother's house three blocks away. My mother carried my baby brother above the snow and she used her body to make a path through the 3 foot snow drifts so that me and my sister could follow her through the snow. We made it safely and rode out the rest of the winter disaster at my grandmother's home.

I remember when it had snowed about 8", it was at that point that they closed I-65 to all traffic. My boyfriend at the time drove from the Knobs to the U of L campus on the closed interstate to pick me up. He said, "If I'm getting snowbound, you are going to be snowbound with me." I'll always remember that ride back to Indiana....nobody else in sight on the roads.

Jeremy Kappell, sorry to hear that. :(

I remember going to work on back of a tractor to take care of dogs at vet clinic 3 miles from my house. then going out that night with friends to drive across the Ohio at the greenwood boat dock. I was young n dumb .

I was going to school at WKU in Bowling Green at the time the storm hit. I remember my roommate and myself and another friend walking from our dorm to Diddle Arena to watch a basketball game. We didn't get as much snow down there but I distinctly remember the snow blowing horizontally right in our faces as we trudged to the game. Big drifts on the way home, naturally. I remember the river freezing up enough for one brave (hah!) soul to drive his Jeep on the Ohio River. Good times.....

I had just got out of the Army and had an apartment in old Louisville. My roommate at the time was a friend that I had grown up with, we had some friends over for little unplanned party so we were lucky enough to be snowed in with 6 of our best friends and with-in walking distance to a store. We were all in our late teens and early 20s so it turned out to be a great time for us, actually unforgetable, it was the 70s afterall !!

We lived near Jelloway in Knox County, Ohio. It took from Thursday until Tuesday following to get out; then I had to walk more than a mile to meet my father in law who picked me up. National Guard used bulldozers to plow roads they could not always find. Near the airport at Mansfield, Ohio there was a semi-truck completely buried in a snow drift on the roadway; they found the driver alive in the truck after several days.

My mom gave birth to my brother that night. After the ambulance crashed due to the storm.

Believe it or not there were some of us that thought we could make it to our jobs. We had heard that police would issue tickets to anyone trying to drive ANYWHERE! That's all we needed to hear to know we were all safe staying at home. We also had the worst case of cabin fever by the time it was all over.

I was pregnant with my first child and my husband spent the week getting food and water to neighbors

I as pregnant with my first & due in 3 weeks. It was raining & mild. My sister came over with her 5 month old & we went shopping. By the time we got back it was dinner, we ate & suddenly the wind started blowing with huge snowflakes. They spent the night & her baby used our baby bed as the first! It howled all night rattling windows & thumping the ornamental shrubbery against the house. Unbelievable! Her husband came the next day in a borrowed jeep to pick them up. I was told Colerain avenue was car after car off the road. When my baby was born at end of February the snow heaps remained alongside the roads & there were many chuckholes along the way!

Well, during the ice event we had in 1977, I had to wait for a bus at Poplar Level and Shepherdsville Rd. for 2.5 hours! The one part of my body that wasn't covered were my cheeks which became frostbitten. Then when I got to work: there were just 2 of us that made it in! The Blizzard of 1978, I was stuck in my apartment for a solid week. Good thing we had enough groceries to hold us over. But it was cold! I remember the wind howling. And does anyone remember the phrase "snow shark" coined by a local newsperson? Those huge lumps of snow by the side of the road and in the parking lots could eat a vehicle. It seems like we saw the last of that snow melt by the middle of March, lol.

I had back surgery that month. The National Guard was picking up nurses to bring into the hospital. General Electric kept the employees and set up cots for sleeping. My hospital stay was to be for 6 nights but wounded up staying 10 nights.

I remember it very well.I was 17 years old .People where driving there cars across the river to Kentucky....

I was 16 and had gone to babysit on that Wednesday evening
For a family in Goshen, KY. It was my 1st time at this
Family's home with a 6 mo old baby and 5 year old
Boy. The parent's got stuck in Louisville, unable to make
It up the Prospect Hwy 42 hill around River Rd. The parents didn't
Make it home until Saturday. I had a farmer with a
Tractor bring me food from Goshen Country Store for the
Boy and baby food, formula for the baby, and my request was
For a toothbrush. LOL
I was out of school for another month after our
Christmas Break. I don't ever want to see that
Kind of storm again in my lifetime.

That was when we realy had Winters. AtoZ Contracting.

I definitely remember it. We lived just outside Good Hope, Ohio, down by Greenfield. My youngest brother and I were the only kids still living at home. He was 17 and I was 12. We took our mother's turkey lifter/skewers and cooked hot dogs and marshmallows over the fireplace. We were having a ball. Our poor Dad stayed up all night for 4-5 days keeping the fireplace going, as we had no electric. My oldest brother's baby was about 8 months old and ran out of formula, like another story I read! My brother walked the 3-4 miles to our house and my Dad joined him and they set off walking for the closest town. They came across a dairy/juice truck just down the road, that had slipped off into the ditch with no occupant in it. I remember the guys coming home with a lot of milk and Tropicana juice. It wasn't formula, but close enough.

I was a freshman in high school. We would go to school for a day and then be out of school several more days. We missed school most of February as I recall. I thought it was great. If that were today, we'd be going to school until July. Back then we didn't have to make up snow days.

it must have been scary

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