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Thirty-six years ago, the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes were paralyzed by one of the worst winter storms to ever sweep across the region. Transportation, schools, and businesses were shut down for days. The "Great Blizzard of 1978" dumped vast amounts of snow across the region and caused widespread near-hurricane strength wind gusts that heaped snow into enormous drifts. A legend to those who lived through it, this once-in-a-lifetime storm will always be the standard by which the severities of all future winter storms to hit this region are judged.

This severe blizzard was the result of a relatively rare merger of two distinct upper level waves (one over Texas and one over the Northern Plains) that caused an explosive intensification of a surface low pressure system moving north from the Gulf Coast into Kentucky and Ohio. The resultant massive and powerful storm system produced some of the lowest pressure readings ever recorded in the United States
The barograph at the National Weather Service office located at the Greater Cincinnati Airport had to be readjusted as an unprecedented drop in pressure caused the pen to fall off the initial chart scale.
mainland that were not associated with hurricanes. In fact, several weather stations in the storm's path had to readjust their barographs as station pressures fell below the initial chart scale. On January 26th, the barometric pressure dropped to 28.46 inches of mercury at Columbus, 28.68 inches at Dayton, and 28.81 inches at Cincinnati. These readings set new records for the lowest sea level pressures ever recorded at each station. Even more impressive was Cleveland's record low pressure reading of 28.28 inches, which remains the lowest pressure ever recorded in Ohio and one of the lowest pressure readings on record within the mainland United States (not associated with a hurricane).

Rain and fog were widespread across the region during the evening hours of January 25, 1978 with temperatures generally in the 30s and 40s. National Weather Service offices across the Great Lakes and Upper Ohio Valley had issued blizzard warnings for most of the region by late evening on January 25th. Early that morning, an arctic airmass pushed into the area with bitter cold temperatures and howling winds. Blizzard conditions arrived in Cincinnati around 1 AM and reached Dayton and Columbus within the next couple hours. By 7 AM, the blizzard conditions extended all the way to Cleveland. Visibilities were near zero for much of the day and even into the 27th. Temperatures rapidly plunged from the 30s to bitter-cold single digits in just a few hours. Wind gusts averaged 50 to 70 mph for much of the day on the 26th, reaching 69 mph at Dayton and Columbus and 82 mph in Cleveland. An ore carrier stranded in thick ice on Lake Erie just offshore from Sandusky reported sustained winds of 86 mph with gusts to 111 mph that morning! Extremely cold wind chills around minus 50 degrees or lower continued throughout the day, making it especially dangerous to venture outside. While snowfall was difficult to measure due to the strong winds, official storm-total snowfall amounts from January 25-27 ranged from 4.7 inches in Columbus to 6.9 inches in Cincinnati to 12.9 inches in Dayton. Other areas across the region saw well over a foot of snow from the storm.
Large snowdrifts buried these cars in Vandalia, Ohio up to their rooftops and made roadways completely impassable. In northern Ohio and other parts of the region, snowdrifts were tall enough to bury whole semis. Photo courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University.

The powerful winds and snow caused major complications across the entire region. Widespread wind damage occurred as thousands of trees and many miles of electric/telephone lines were blown down. As a result, hundreds of thousands of homes were left without power and heat, and many important communication lines were disconnected. Gusty winds also caused numerous other instances of structural damage as well as massive snowdrifts reaching 15 to 25 feet in height. In addition to reaching the rooftops of houses and businesses and causing many roof collapses, these huge drifts brought practically all means of air, rail, and highway transportation to a complete standstill for 24 hours or more. Cars were easily buried and many individuals were left stranded in their vehicles. Numerous closures of interstates and highways resulted, including Interstate 75 which was closed for three days, a portion of Interstate 475 near Toledo which was shut down for six days, and the entire length of the Ohio Turnpike which was closed for the first time in its history. These prolonged highway closures resulted in food shortages in many areas, and the Red Cross and armed forces stepped in to help distribute food to those in need.

Fortunately, the early morning arrival of this severe blizzard prompted officials to close nearly all schools on the 26th, which prevented children from being stranded at school or on buses. In fact, Ohio schools did not reopen until early the following week. President Carter declared a federal disaster in Ohio on the 26th and in Indiana the following day. Meanwhile, area governors activated the National Guard
Where snow-covered roadways made travel by automobile either impractical or impossible, emergency personnel and volunteers utilized snowmobilies to perform rescues and deliveries. In this case, a toboggan was used as a makeshift stretcher. Photo courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University
in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. Thousands of men and women on active duty put in many long hours to help clear roadways, restore power, perform emergency rescues and evacuations, deliver food and medicine, and transport medical personnel to hospitals. In many instances, the only means of rescuing individuals with medical emergencies was by helicopter. All across the region, thousands of volunteers with snowmobiles and four-wheel drive vehicles also risked their lives to transport emergency personnel and utility workers and to deliver medical necessities to those in need. Radio stations suspended regular programming to provide storm information and to serve as communication links where other means of communication had failed and highway travel was impossible.

The death toll from this epic winter storm rose to over 70 across the region. This included 5 in Kentucky, 11 in Indiana, and 51 in Ohio. Of the Ohio fatalities, 22 were the result of exposure as individuals abandoned their stranded vehicles or homes with no heat. Thirteen individuals died from the cold while trapped inside their vehicles, and another 13 died inside their homes after losing power and heat. Two others died in buildings that collapsed under the weight of heavy snow. Falls and heart-attacks caused by snow shoveling were among the other causes of death across the region. Fortunately, with so many highways closed, there were no traffic-related deaths in Ohio that weekend. Agricultural losses from the storm totaled around $73 million in Ohio as the result of dead livestock, lost production, property damage, and milk/egg losses. Unable to store or transport milk because of highway closures, farmers were forced to dump the vast majority of milk produced in the days following the blizzard.

To be considered a blizzard, a winter storm must produce sustained winds or frequent gusts greater than 35 mph and be accompanied by falling and/or blowing snow that frequently reduces visibility to less than 1/4 mile for 3 hours or more. Generally, temperatures will be 20 degrees or lower with a blizzard. A severe blizzard is characterized by wind speeds of 45 mph or higher accompanied by a great density of falling and/or blowing snow that frequently reduces visibilities to near zero, along with temperatures generally 10 degrees or lower. The powerful winter storm of 1978 was a severe blizzard.



Additional Photos of the Blizzard of 1978


Cars were stranded in large snowdrifts all across the Ohio Valley

An aerial shot of Greenville, Ohio taken on the morning of January 30th, 1978

The National Guard aided in many rescue and recovery efforts

This car was buried in the snow for over a month in Kettering, Ohio


Powerful winds knocked down thousands of trees like this one in Dayton

Residents were left with plenty of snow to clean up once roads were cleared

The abundance of snow and huge drifts made for a fun time creating igloos

A National Guard snow plow prepares to clear the way in Shelby County, Ohio


Horses were oftentimes used as alternate modes of transportation

Jeep tracks in an open field made for an artistic view from above

This resident of Miami County, Ohio finds an innovative way to travel

Blizzard conditions arrived in Dayton early in the morning on Jan 26, 1978

Above photographs all courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University




Snowy scene along Sleepy Hollow Rd in Covington, KY

All bundled up to brave the bitter cold temperatures

A snowy farmhouse scene following the blizzard

Towboat trapped in ice on the Ohio River


Clearing snow at the Greater Cincinnati Airport

Clearing snow at the Greater Cincinnati Airport

Large snowdrifts on a highway offramp

Snow plow hard at work in northern Kentucky


Snow covered and slippery I-275 at exit 84

Slippery roads resulted in many fender benders

Large snowdrifts made for difficult walking

Thinking warm thoughts in Covington, KY


Snow covered Donaldson Road in Erlanger, KY

Ice forming on the banks of the river

Newport, Cincinnati, and ice on the Ohio River

Plenty of snow to clear from this rural drive


School closures meant time for fun in the snow

Venturing out in the bitter cold and blowing snow

Snow covered cars required lots of effort

Peaceful scene from Eden Park in Cincinnati

Above photographs all courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library



Daily Weather Maps from January 24-27, 1978


January 24, 1978

January 25, 1978

January 26, 1978

January 27, 1978


Summary from NWS Akron, OH (Special Weather Statement from Feb 1, 1978)
Summary from NWS Northern Indiana
Summary from NWS Detroit
Summary from NWS Cleveland
Summary from NWS Indianapolis


REFERENCE:

Schmidlin, Thomas W. and Jeanne A., 1996: Thunder in the Heartland: a Chronicle of Outstanding Weather
        Events in Ohio
. Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio.


Michael Kurz

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