July 1, 2016

Partly sunny

Blizzard of 1978: The perfect storm

Staff Columnist

It wasn’t just the snow.

It wasn’t just the wind.

It wasn’t just the cold.

It was the combination of the three that made the Blizzard of 1978, which struck 30 years ago today, the worst winter storm in Ohio’s history. It claimed 51 lives and shut down roads, schools and businesses for days.

Call it “the perfect storm,” call it “the white hurricane,” it is a touchstone in our collective memory, like the JFK assassination or the space shuttle Challenger explosion. Mention the Blizzard of ’78 to anyone old enough to remember, and they can tell you what they were doing when it hit and how they dug out.

Medina was the home of lots and lots of ice and snow in this picture from the Jan. 30, 1978, edition of The Gazette, showing piles of snow almost as high as this sign at the city limits. The newspaper did not publish for two days following the storm.

Legendary Cleveland TV meteorologist Dick Goddard was at home in Westlake during the early morning hours of Thursday, Jan. 26, 1978, with a pot of coffee and his two cats — Floozie and Blanco — waiting.

On the air that night, Goddard had done something for the first and only time in his long career: He told viewers not to plan on highway travel tomorrow.

“People on television have an obligation,” he said. “The effect of the forecasts — be they right or wrong — on business is incredible.” Goddard, who now lives in Medina Township, has tried to wield that power carefully. But in this case, he was worried.

What he and other forecasters saw on the weather maps was a Delta Low, one of Ohio’s less-common “snow makers,” headed straight north, and fast. Compared to other storm systems that blow in from the north or the west, a Delta Low is loaded with moisture.

“It brings up enormous amounts of the raw material you need, coming out of the Gulf of Mexico,” Goddard said. Bitterly cold arctic air was headed east from Iowa and Illinois to meet it.

The day before the blizzard, the weather had been comparatively mild in Ohio, with fog, rain and temperatures in the 30s and 40s. As the night wore on, Goddard began to wonder if he had missed the mark in his forecast.

“I thought, ‘Oh man, I’ll be selling shoes tomorrow, because nothing’s happening. What an incredible exaggeration.’ ”

Just before 4 a.m., Goddard said his cats began running around the house — perhaps sensing the air pressure bottoming out. At 4:05 a.m., Cleveland Hopkins recorded the lowest barometric pressure in Ohio history: 28.28 inches. Outside, the wind began to drive the snow so hard, it felt like acupuncture when it hit the skin, Goddard said.

The combination of wind and low pressure was the equivalent of a Category 3 hurricane — the same rating as Hurricane Katrina when it made landfall.

“This is the granddaddy,” Goddard said. “This is the one people remember.”

Temperatures fell 30 degrees in two hours and the wind rose to 50 mph, with gusts up to 70 and 80 mph. Wind chills were below -50 all day. Due to the wind, exact snowfall was hard to measure. Official records range from 5 to 15 inches. The wind parlayed that into drifts up to 25 feet tall, engulfing cars and collapsing buildings. Trees fell, knocking out power lines. Many were without heat and electricity for days in the subzero cold.

President Jimmy Carter declared Ohio a federal disaster area and Gov. James Rhodes activated the Ohio National Guard. Medina County Sheriff Neil Hassinger, then a lieutenant with the Ohio State Highway Patrol, rode with Guard troops in enormous six-wheel-drive vehicles, helping residents stranded without heat or electricity.

“The biggest thing I remember is there was no heat in those miserable things,” he said, laughing.

Hassinger recalled pulling abandoned vehicles out of the roadway so snowplows could get through. One tractor-trailer was frozen in ice halfway up its wheels.

“These big wreckers hooked on and it actually pulled the truck apart,” he said.

In his long career, no storm was bigger.

“That was the worst one in all my years as far as impacting a large area,” he said. “It impacted everyone.” Including his own family, without heat at their Reimer Road home until rescued by the Guard.

The Guard, along with troopers and sheriff’s deputies, drove doctors and nurses to hospitals and delivered medicine and groceries to snowed-in residents. At least 75 people were rescued by the Guard and patrol.

Reader Georgia Kimble provided this picture showing her Ford Ranchero, the only vehicle that could make it through the snow at the family’s Kennedy Road farm in Litchfield Township.

Tractor-trailers ringed Medina’s Public Square, where truckers pulled off to weather the storm. Stranded travelers were housed in churches, fire stations and government buildings. Several hundred were stuck at Truckstops of America in Westfield Township, where guests stayed four to a room. National Guard troops slept in shifts on cots at the patrol post.

The Gazette didn’t publish for two days after the storm. When the newspaper resumed, it told the story of a Chatham Township girl transported by National Guard helicopter to Akron Children’s Hospital for dialysis.

A Guard helicopter also delivered an electric crew to the otherwise inaccessible home of Doris Grabski in Homer Township, who endured freezing temperatures for four days. She told reporter Neysa Stroup it was 20 degrees inside her house. Grabski closed off her kitchen and lit the gas stove, which raised the room temperature to 35 degrees.

“I would never want to go through that again,” Grabski said in the story. “I felt as though I was alone in the whole wide world.”

The newspaper reported the story of Cleveland trucker James Truly, trapped in his snow-buried rig for six days outside Mansfield. A rescue party, led by his brother, spotted the truck’s antenna sticking out of a massive snow drift.

Schools across Medina County were canceled the morning of the blizzard, but in many buildings, frozen pipes burst and caused damage.

“For about a week, we had a real good time,” recalled then-county Superintendent Homer Smith, laughing.

Retired Highland Superintendent Mike Carlson, then middle school principal, said today people are accustomed to storms that keep them off the road for a few hours. The Blizzard of ’78 brought the world to a standstill for days.

“It was one of those freaks of nature that just stopped everything. It was quite a storm,” Carlson said. “We’ve never had anything like it since.”

When classes finally resumed, it was hardly back to normal.

“We didn’t even count absences I think for a week after that because we didn’t know if they could get out to get in,” he said. “The buses couldn’t get to certain streets. It was impossible. Even when schools reopened, some streets were still closed.”

Dave Russell fought the blizzard for hours, plowing snow in Sharon Township with a single-axle dump truck. Eventually, he had to give up.

“We just quit because we couldn’t keep ahead of it,” he said. When the storm ended, many roads could only be opened with bulldozers and front-end loaders. In those days, some stretches of roads were unpopulated, so they were left snowed shut.

“I just know I spent a lot of hours behind the wheel, driving,” Russell said. Because the storm started as rain, there was a lot of ice underneath. He recalled helping rescue one couple whose basement flooded when electricity for their sump pump went out.

“Everyone was helping everyone then,” he said. “It didn’t matter who you were.”

Doug King, administrative coordinator for the Medina County Highway Department, said drivers plowed snow 12 to 15 hours per day. Those who lived in outlying areas and couldn’t get home slept on cots in the department’s garage. The families of drivers who lived in town brought in meals.

Retired driver Ray Miller drove a road grader to his home on Acme Road and just stayed in the area, clearing snow for days. He remembered the county rented front-end loaders and other pieces of equipment from gravel pits and anywhere they could find them.

“We rented everything we could get,” Miller said. “It was a nasty winter. One none of us would ever want to go through again.”

Plow drivers were constantly finding buried cars and relaying their location to the highway patrol so troopers could find their owners, King said. With roadsides packed with plowed snow, it was hard to find a place to push it all.

“It would pile up on the piles and it would roll back on the roads,” he said.

Many dairy farms were forced to dump their milk when trucks couldn’t get through to get it to market. Harold Thoburn, then the local extension agent, said Medina County farmers lost $50,000 per day in dumped milk. He estimated total agricultural losses at up to $200,000, including wind damage to buildings.

It’s a storm former Sharon Township dairy farmer John Grindle won’t forget.

“That was the longest and the coldest when the wind blew the hardest,” he said. “You’d walk from one building to the next and you had to thaw yourself out.”

The farm had a tractor-powered generator, so they were able to keep the heat and the lights on for themselves and for neighbors who came to stay with them — as well as milk 100 cows.

Grindle, too, dumped several thousand gallons of milk, but at least one truck was able to get through with the help of the state and county, he recalled.

“We were fortunate that when the dairy called, we had a tankful of milk we were getting ready to dump,” he said. The dairy was trying to find milk to at least supply Cleveland hospitals.

Grindle and other farmers drove into Wadsworth on tractors to get food for elderly neighbors. Sometimes he’d pull out a stuck snowplow. Sometimes they’d pull him out.

“We just helped out wherever we could to keep things going,” he said.

Reader Donna Dachtler shared this photo of her 3½-year-old son, Eric, on top of a pile of melting snow from the blizzard.

On Jan. 26, 1978, the worst winter storm in history buried Medina County in snow that lasted well into April and memories to last a lifetime. And yet, buried in the pages of The Gazette, two days after the blizzard on Jan. 28, was the unlikeliest of postscripts.

Spotted in Guilford Township by resident Ray Wentink: the first robin of spring.

Gladden may be reached at 330-721-4052 or gladden@ohio.net.