Bill’s Blog: A look back at West Michigan’s biggest winter storms

Bill's Blog

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — This will be my 48th year of forecasting winter storms here in West Michigan. During that time, I’ve covered some amazing winter weather events.

Topping the list was the blizzard of Jan. 26, 1978. Check out this weather summary I typed (yes, we used plain old typewriters back then) that morning:

The blizzard of 1978 made me a household name in West Michigan. The blizzard brought everything to a standstill. There were no cellphones, 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 television meteorologists in Savannah, Georgia – but, of course, I never made it down there.

The 16.1 inches of snow that fell in Grand Rapids that day remains the biggest midnight-to-midnight snowfall ever.

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The low pressure system that was the center of the storm was in western West Virginia. It backed up to the north-northwest to sit over Port Huron, Michigan. Grand Rapids had its lowest air pressure ever (28.55 inches) during that storm. The pressure dropped to 28.23 inches at Mt. Clemens — the lowest pressure ever recorded in the Midwest. Notre Dame and Ohio State universities closed completely for the first time ever.

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A snow canyon along the Lakeshore.

The Traverse City area received nearly 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 52 inches of snow in four days, with 30 inches of lake-effect snow following the blizzard.

Shoveling out a buried car

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 northern Ohio. Up to 40 inches of snow fell in southeast Wisconsin with some added lake-effect from northeast winds. A Blizzard Warning was issued for the entire state of Indiana. Some 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.

Blizzard of 1978

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 Grand Rapids occurred on the same day of the year. The lowest during the Blizzard of Jan. 26, 1978 and the highest (31.07 inches) on Jan. 26, 1927.

A similar blizzard occurred on Feb. 1-2, 2011. Commonly called the Groundhog Day Blizzard, the storm produced 17.2 inches of snow in two days in Grand Rapids. This storm was also accompanied by strong winds. The average wind speed on Feb. 1 was 21 mph. The forecasts for this storm were very good and we were as prepared for the storm as you could be.

In the 8 days that followed the storm, Grand Rapids received only 1.3 inches of snow and we had several days with lighter winds and high temperatures in the low 30s, which made clean-up easier.

Cars Stranded on Lakeshore Dr. in downtown Chicago on Jan. 27 1867

Another blizzard with extremely heavy snow hit SW Michigan and NE Illinois on Jan. 26, 1967.

Unseasonably warm air preceded this blizzard. The high temperature in Grand Rapids on Jan. 24 was a daily record 62 degrees. The temperature was still 57 degrees at midnight. Then the cold air roared in during the 25th to set the stage for the blizzard on the 26th.

Northern Illinois and Southwest Michigan were under a rare January severe thunderstorm watch during the evening of the 24th. I was at a meeting of the St. Joseph Teen Club and I left the basement meeting to go watch the thunderstorm, which had strong winds and frequent lightning. Chicago reached 65 degrees on the 24th and it was still 60 at 9 p.m.

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Weather map the day before the big blizzard

The forecast called for up to 4 inches of snow — and the public was unprepared for a blizzard. Snow fell continuously in Chicago from 5:02 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 26 until 10:10 a.m. Friday the 27th. Winds gusted to 53 mph and the visibility was reduced to near zero in heavy snow and blowing snow. Drifts were measured up to 15 feet high!

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Snowfall from the Blizzard of 1967

Thousands were stranded in offices, in schools, and on buses. An estimated 50,000 cars were abandoned in NE Illinois and 800 Chicago Transit Authority buses littered the streets and expressways. People living near main roads took in strangers who had abandoned their vehicles. Snowplows were sent from Iowa and Wisconsin to help Chicago dig out. The airports were closed. There were drifts up to 10 feet on the runways at Midway Airport. The airports didn’t reopen until around midnight the following Monday night. It took three weeks before every street in Chicago had been plowed. Some schools reopened on the 31st. There were 26 fatalities in Chicago due to the storm, many from heart attacks from shoveling the snow. Helicopters were used for medical transport.

December 2013 Ice Storm in S. Lower Michigan

Another memorable weather event was the ice storm of December 21-22, 2013. There was a strong front along the Indiana/Ohio/Michigan border. While Lambertville was in the mid-50s, Monroe (just 15 miles away) was in the mid-30s. There was a narrow band from Barry County to the Thumb Area where three quarters of an inch of freezing rain fell, knocking out power to tens of thousands right before Christmas. There were still hundreds without power on New Year’s Day, when Michigan State defeated Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

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