The Blizzard of 1978!

Bill's Blog

Two of Michigan’s worst blizzards occurred on January 26th. There’s a separate thread for the 1967 storm.

The Blizzard of 1978 made me a household name in West Michigan. Along with the Derecho of May 31, 1998, it was the most disruptive storm of my career. The blizzard brought everything to a standstill. There were no cell phones, no computers. All people did was stay inside and watch television…and there I was, morning – noon and night. The ratings those few days were huge. After that storm, I couldn’t go to the store without people coming up wanting to talk about the storm. I was supposed to be at a convention of meteorologists in Savannah, Georgia – but, of course, I never made it down there.

The 16.1″ of snow that fell in Grand Rapids that day remains the biggest midnight-to-midnight snowfall ever. Here was my snow forecast typed on an old Royal typewriter. I think the only other time I forecast that much snow was the Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011.

bill-steffen-1978-blizzard-warning_262015

The low pressure system was in western West Virginia and backed up to the NNW to sit over Port Huron, Michigan.  Grand Rapids had its lowest air pressure ever (28.55″) during that storm. The pressure dropped to 28.23″ at Mt. Clemens – the lowest pressure ever recorded in the Midwest.  Notre Dame and Ohio St. Universities closed for the first time ever. 

The Traverse City area received about 28 inches. Some schools in West Michigan were closed for nearly two weeks.  Wind gusts of 40 mph blew the snow into immense drifts that I measured as high as 14 feet. Muskegon had up to 52″ of snow in 4 days, with 30″ of lake-effect snow following the blizzard.

It took hours to dig out your car…but then you had nowhere to go

There were 70 storm-related fatalities, 51 of them in Ohio. Of those deaths, 13 people were found dead in stuck cars and 13 in unheated homes. More than 125,000 vehicles were abandoned in the storm.  Wind gusts were as high as 70-80 mph in N.Ohio. Up to 40″ of snow fell in SE Wisconsin with some added lake-effect from northeast winds. A Blizzard Warning was issued for the entire state of Indiana.  5,000 National Guard members were called out to help with snow removal. Officials asked for anyone with a snowmobile to help transport doctors and nurses to hospitals. Winds gusted to 55 mph at Indianapolis, where an Amtrak train was stuck.

The Michigan State Police pronounced Traverse City, Michigan “unofficially closed” and warned area residents to stay home. WTCM radio staffer Marty Spaulding, who closed the bayfront radio station the previous night at 11 pm, was called to reopen it the next day at 6am as regular staffers couldn’t get there due to impassable roads. Upon arriving after a 45-minute walk in waist-deep snow from his home 10 city blocks away, he had to dig down “a foot” to put the key in the front door.

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Picture from Benton Township, Michigan after the Blizzard of 1978 and the heavy snow of 2014

The picture above shows the aftermath of the Blizzard of 1978 and the heavy snowfall of 2014 in Benton Township in SW Lower Michigan. A meteorologist in SE Michigan said: ” About 20 people died as a direct or indirect result of the storm in Michigan, most due to heart attacks or traffic accidents. east one person died of exposure in a stranded automobile. Many were hospitalized for exposure, mostly from homes that lost power and heat. About 100,000 cars were abandoned on Michigan highways.”

The blizzard was followed by the coldest February Grand Rapids had ever had and the 5th coldest March. It took until April for some of the snow piles to melt.

Here’s An oddity – both the lowest air pressure ever and the highest air pressure ever in G.R. occurred on the same day of the year.  The lowest during the Blizzard of Jan. 26, 1978 and the highest (31.07″) on Jan. 26, 1927. 

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