So far this winter, Ohioans have experienced mild weather, leaving some to pine for a snowy forecast, but 42 years ago this month southern Ohio was experiencing a rare blizzard that would bury the area in deep snows and leave behind memories that decades later, to many who lived through it, seem as crisp as the frigid, blustery air during the treacherous and unexpected weather event dubbed the “Blizzard of ‘78”.
“The Great Blizzard of ‘78 was one of the worst winter storms to ever sweep across the region. Transportation, schools, and businesses were shut down for days,” a National Weather Service (NWS) article states. “The ‘Great Blizzard of ‘78’ 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.”
Becky Taylor was six months pregnant with her first daughter at the time of the blizzard and living in an upstairs apartment that was accessible only by a long flight of outdoor stairs. She recalls the unique set of challenges brought forth by the extreme weather.
“The wind was howling that night and I couldn’t get warm enough to sleep,” said Taylor, of Georgia and formerly of Chillicothe. “I ended up wearing several layers of pajamas and a heavy robe, under every blanket we owned.”
Once the storm set in, dishes that had the night before been soaking in the kitchen sink were sitting in frozen water, says Taylor, and the stairs outside her apartment were “buried in snow and treacherously slippery.”
“I waited in my living room until my husband shoveled and salted them. Around daybreak, we decided to leave the apartment for my parents’ home, which we knew would be a lot warmer. When I walked into the living room, there was about an inch of snow covering the carpet. The wind had blown the snow in around the sliding glass doors overnight,” said Taylor. “I finally made it down to the car safely, and we made the short drive to the warmth of my parents’ house. I never went back to that apartment after that night.”
Kristi Sattler, of Waverly, was also pregnant with her first child in 1978.
“We lived in Cincinnati. The year before, 1977, the Ohio River froze over,” said Sattler. “I, being from Chicago, was getting a lot of flack (all in jest) about bringing the cold weather. If ‘Frozen’ had been out at the time, I’m sure my nickname would have been Elsa!”
The “massive and powerful storm system”, says the NWS, “produced some of the lowest pressure readings ever recorded in the United States mainland that were not associated with hurricanes.” On the night of Jan. 26, 1978, the barometric pressure fell below 28.46 inches at Columbus, 28.68 inches at Dayton, and 28.81 at Cincinnati, setting new records for “the lowest sea level pressures ever recorded at each station,” the NWS reports.
On the night before the blizzard (Jan. 25), rain and fog blanketed the region and temperatures hovered in the 30s and 40s, but by later that evening, blizzard warnings were in effect across the region. By the early morning hours of Jan. 26, “bitter cold temperatures and howling winds” had arrived in Dayton and Columbus, bringing with them blizzard conditions, “near zero” visibility, “bitter cold single-digit” temperatures, 50 to 75 mile per hour wind gusts, wind chills minus 50 degrees, and snowfall ranging from 4.7 inches to over a foot deep, according to the NWS.
A child at the time, Jenny Pettit-Ross, of Waverly, remembers most that school was cancelled and closed, much like everything else in the area.
“Everything was closed. We had to ration our food,” said Pettit-Ross. “We built forts in the snow. It was crazy, but yet it was awesome.”
Brenda Harper, of Butler County, formerly of Waverly, and originally from Logan, Ohio, was a freshman at Ohio State University at the time of the blizzard.
“They only cancelled classes for a day and a half,” said Harper. “I couldn’t get back to Logan for a weekend or two. It really made the transition to college a necessity. After the blizzard, I really enjoyed being on campus for the weekends. It was really a blessing in disguise for me, at least, because Logan wasn’t the center of the universe anymore.”
Chris Casto, of Waverly, was a freshman at Bowling Green State University at the time.
“It was the first time in their history that they shut the school down. It was closed for several days,” said Casto. “Students were informed to stay inside and not to go out at all. That was a problem, though, for several of the dorms since not all of them had cafeterias, including mine. Vending machines emptied in a very short time, causing some tempers to flare, but we survived!”
The NWS says “powerful winds and snow caused major complications across the entire region”, and that “thousands of trees and many miles of electric/telephone lines were blown down” as a result of the blizzard.
“Hundreds of thousands of homes were left without power and heat, and many important communication lines were disconnected,” the NWS article continues. “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.”
Becky Taylor recalls traveling on U.S. 35 later in the day on Jan. 26, and coming to the assistance of stranded motorists encountered along the way.
“One of them was a young mother with a baby who looked to be about six months old,” said Taylor. “My parents were not happy we decided to go back out into the weather, but I’m thankful to this day that I did. So was the mother of the baby we rescued that day.”
Keri Ann Crowe, of Chillicothe, was four years old at the time. She says rather than being frightened by the storm, she was “in awe” of the snowy weather.
“All I thought about was sledding, snowmen, and snowball fights,” she said. “My momma had to pack me cause snow was over my head. We had to have our neighbor dig snow out from in front of our doors so we could get out, and they had to get snow off the top of our trailer because they were worried it was too heavy and would make it collapse.”
Prolonged highway closures due to the snowdrifts and inclement conditions resulted in food shortages in some areas, and the National Guard and Red Cross had to intervene, “stepping up to help distribute food to those in need” and working to plow roadways and assist in rescue and recovery efforts, says the NWS.
Patricia Barclay, of Chillicothe, remembers being “snowed out” and needing assistance in order to return to the safety and comfort of their home.
“We lived in the last house on a dead-end street. The National Guard came after three days of being snowed out. That’s right, snowed out,” said Barclay. “They came up our road and cleared it, but they had to turn around. We got our driveway cleaned out and we were able to get our cars to our house. We lived on state Route 104, and we had to park there. My husband and I missed a day of work.”
Allen Lyons, of Chillicothe, recalls very deep snowdrifts along local roadways.
“Driving on the roads was like driving down hallways,” said Lyons. “The snow was piled up six to eight feet on both sides (of the road).”
Fortunately for local children, the morning start of the winter storm prompted schools to close early.
“This prevented children from being stranded at school or on buses,” the NWS article states.
Anita “Cricket” Murray, of Piketon, was eight years old in 1978 and remembers her father, Raymond Murray, facing challeges as a local school bus driver.
“His brakes kept freezing up on the bus because they were air brakes,” said Murray.
Michele Lovenscheimer Martin, of Chillicothe, has “amazing” childhood memories of the blizzard.
“Nothing but great mountains of snow forts, the best snowball fights ever, not to mention school was out forever,” she said. “Makeup days sucked though!”
Then a two-year old, Tammy Kelley, of Waverly, can clearly picture the dramatic winter scene.
“I remember my mom opening the front door,” said Kelley. “The snow drift was as high as the door frame.”
Six years old at the time of the blizzard, Jessie Hablitzel, of Piketon, remembers the deep snowfall and lingering weather.
“I remember seeing the snow halfway up the windows of my bedroom. My dad still had to get to work,” said Hablitzel. “We had wood heat, so my mom, sister, and I snuggled in the big four-poster brass bed for what seemed like days.”
A federal disaster was declared in Ohio by President Jimmy Carter on Jan. 26, followed by a disaster declaration in Indiana the next day.
“Thousands of men and women on active duty (in the National Guard) 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,” the NWS states. “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.”
Peggy Kuhn, of Waverly, at the time the blizzard hit was traveling to and from the Cincinnati Burn Center each day to visit her father, Junior Mustard. On Jan. 4, 1978, Mustard suffered second and third-degree burns over much of his body as a result of a gas explosion at the family’s home.
“The next year, dad was watching TV and pictures of the blizzard were on the news,” said Kuhn. “He remembered hearing nurses talking about it. He was 39 years old at the time. He is 81 now and is an amazing man.”
Over 70 people died across the region as a result of the Blizzard of ‘78, including five in Kentucky, 11 in Indiana, and 51 in Ohio. Twenty-two of the Ohio deaths were due to exposure to the cold while trapped either inside vehicles or homes without power and heat. Other Ohioans died a result of collapsing buildings, falls, and heart attacks suffered during the storm.
Agriculturally, farmers suffered losses as well, as $78 million was lost due to “dead livestock, lost production, property damage, and milk/egg losses,” according to the National Weather Service.
Nancy McLoughlin Howard, of Lockbourne, remembers tunneling out of her home.
“I had a neighbor who lived behind me and our yards connected. I called her and she started digging a tunnel towards my house, and I started digging one to hers. Together, we made a tunnel so we could travel back and forth,” said Howard. “It was pretty cool, but it took forever to actually melt. I, for one, wouldn’t want to live through another one.”
A blizzard, the NWS reports, must consist of “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 three hours or more.” In addition, temperatures during a blizzard fall to 20 degrees or lower. A severe blizzard features 45 mph or higher wind gusts, near-zero visibility, densely falling or blowing snow, and temperatures 10 degrees or less.
“The powerful winter storm of 1978 was a severe blizzard,” the NWS states.
Upon reading comments below a Facebook post recalling the Blizzard of ‘78, Josh Marriott, of Washington Court House, was put off by those who commented that they wish a similar storm system would strike in the near future, or at least a similar deep snowfall and wintry conditions. In response to such comments, Marriott posted information found on Wikipedia, including the following:
“From Jan. 26 to 27, the entire Ohio Turnpike was shut down for the first time ever. The total effect on transportation in Ohio was described by Major General James C. Clem of the Ohio National Guard as ‘comparable to a nuclear attack.’”
“I just wanted those who are wishing for another blizzard to be aware of what they’re wishing for,” said Marriott.
Douglas Schwart, of Alabama and formerly of Chillicothe, shares Marriott’s opinion regarding such severe inclement wintry weather systems.
“The Blizzard of ‘78 was the first time in my life that I realized that Mother Nature could kill and/or change your life forever,” he said.