GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s been 45 years since the now-infamous blizzard of 1978 ravaged West Michigan, rendering roads impassible and schools closed for weeks.
By the time it was over, many in West Michigan received 1 to 2 feet of snow, and snow drifts up to 15 feet high in spots.
There are many we could ask about the blizzard of ‘78, but perhaps no one in West Michigan has the insight or stories than Storm Team 8 Chief Meteorologist Emeritus Bill Steffen.
At first, he and his fellow meteorologists thought they had overestimated the storm in their forecasts:
“I remember a couple days ahead of time, I went for 6 to 10 inches,” Steffen said. “And I just thought 10 inches, that’s a huge snowstorm. How often does that happen? Ten inches in 24 hours? I mean, not very often. Are you really sure? We thought we were on the high side, as opposed to being on the low side.”
As it turned out, 10 inches was very much on the low side. Between Jan. 26 and Jan. 28, 1978, 1 to 2 feet fell across much of Michigan, with even higher amounts along the lakeshore.
RELYING ON VOLUNTEERS AND MILITARY VEHICLES
Floreen Horstmanshof, a nurse at Lakeview General Hospital in Battle Creek at the time, left for work as the snow began to fall late on the 25th.
“I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to get home in the morning,” Horstmanshof said. “But I had no idea it was going to be that long before I got there.”
It was four days before she returned home and that was only because a four-wheel drive vehicle got her there. Her vehicle remained in the parking lot at Lakeview General for the next two weeks.
Other nurses relied on the help of neighbors to make it to their shifts.
“Officials from six of the hospitals in Grand Rapids put out the request late this morning for people with four-wheel drive vehicles to help get hospital employees to work,” News 8’s Jane Brierly reported on Jan. 26.
View Brierly’s report and more archived coverage from News 8:
Nurses and doctors weren’t the only ones who had difficulty getting to the hospital. Ambulances had difficulty responding to emergencies and transporting patients.
“I honestly don’t remember any ambulances coming in and transport was only by the military vehicles and by other four-wheel drives or things like that,” Horstmanshof said.
Bill Steffen found himself snowed in, too.
“I got up that morning, and I could not move my car,” he recalled. “My car was snowed in.”
“It was about a mile walk for me to get into the station,” he continued. “You know, I trudged in as best I could.”
Home video courtesy Stephen Bocksey shows the 900 block of Burton Street in Grand Rapids under feet of snow in January 1978:
Over 100,000 vehicles were estimated to have been left abandoned on Michigan roadways. In Battle Creek, some of the people stranded on I-94 found refuge at Lakeview General.
“Fort Custer, the military base just outside of Battle Creek, was still operational at that time,” Horstmanshof said. “And there were a lot of military vehicles there and they were sending those out on to I-94 to rescue anybody that was stranded there and bringing them into the hospital, not for medical care, but just to get out of the storm.”
As the storm raged on, snowmobiles and four-wheel drive vehicles became the only reliable forms of transportation. News 8’s Henry Erb reported that snowmobiles “played a major role in emergencies,” moving stranded people, food and medicine. State police even put out the call for snowmobilers to check for stranded cars on clogged back rounds.
Asked what he was seeing, one snowmobiler told Erb: “Just everybody’s stranded. Cars stuck all over.”
Those who were able to ride out the storm at home were strongly encouraged to stay there. Erb reported that in hard-hit St. Joseph and Kalamazoo counties, deputies were ready to arrest anyone who was on the roads without good reason.
Stuck at home, there wasn’t much entertainment except jumping off the roof into a snow pile (which many did).
“This is back at a time when there was no cellphones, no computers. You had nothing to do if you were snowed in but watch me on TV,” Steffen said.
And that’s what people did. West Michigan turned to his updates for the latest on the storm. He wasn’t going anywhere — the other meteorologists still couldn’t make it in and he couldn’t get home.
“…I wore the same clothes for three days in a row,” he recalled. “You know, they were getting a little wrinkly there toward the end. If I could grab an hour’s worth of sleep on the sofa, in the lounge room there, that’s what I did.”
His continuous coverage of the storm practically made him a celebrity.
“I went from hardly anybody knowing me when I went into Meijer to all of a sudden everybody in the store going, gasp, like that,” Steffen said.
Bill Steffen recalls the storm:
15-FOOT DRIFTS IN RURAL ALLEGAN COUNTY
After the snow and blizzard conditions finally ceased, a slow recovery process began, and cleanup crews had their work cut out for them.
Crews trying to pave the way through Allegan County’s rural roads ran into drifts as high as 15 feet. That seems almost incomprehensible, but it was true. From the lakeshore to Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo to the rural roads of mid-Michigan, the drifts were everywhere.
While some comparable impacts were felt along the lakeshore during the blizzard leading up to Christmas 2022, the blizzard of ‘78 still reigns supreme.
“When you look at some of the metrics for the immediate Grand Rapids area, snowfall was very comparable (during the January 1978 and December 2022 storms), peak winds were comparable, but there were some important differences as well,” Bruce Smith, the meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Grand Rapids, said. “The blizzard of ’78 produced snowfall that was much more widespread across Lower Michigan. There was more snow on the ground before the storm hit, which gave more snow to be lofted into the air, blown and drifted around.”
Put head to head, ’78 has the edge.
“The blizzard of of December of ’22, though, it may have fallen short as far as overall impacts,” Smith said. “It’s certainly a strong storm and one that was impactful across the area, though it may have fallen just short of the ’78 blizzard.”
Smith said that while repeat of the blizzard of ‘78 is possible, advances in forecasting and emergency operations in the 45 years since would make a difference.
“Without question, we could see a storm with those types of impacts again, in many ways, from meteorological standpoint, it was a perfect storm,” Smith said. “A blizzard or high-impact storm that we may have had some indication of two, maybe three days in advance back in ’78, we (now) know a week or even more of the potential of big storms. So that allows us to get the word out sooner with greater confidence and allows people to prepare ahead of time.”
More from Bruce Smith:
Though the blizzard of ‘78 crippled West Michigan and left no life untouched, most who lived through it wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I think I’m very glad I got to experience it,” Horstmanshof, the Battle Creek nurse, said. “It was just one of the moments in your life you don’t ever forget.”
Smith said his experience with the blizzard when he was a kid in northern Michigan ignited his love for meteorology.
“Not unlike a lot of us who become meteorologists, there’s a storm or two in our younger years that sort of pique our interest. And the blizzard of ’78 was one such storm for me,” said Smith, who has worked at the NWS for 32 years.
HOW WEST MICHIGAN REPORTED THE STORM
West Michigan newspapers offered extensive coverage on the blizzard and its impacts in a localized way.
If you’re on desktop, use the toolbar at the top of each PDF to zoom in to specific stories or pictures. If you’re on mobile, click the link below each paper to view all pages.
The Grand Rapids Press
Courtesy: Grand Rapids History Center. Below are pages and articles throughout and after the storm. Toward the bottom, there is a special commemorative edition that was published.
Some companies took advantage of the blizzard, using it in their advertising in the Grand Rapids Press:
The Muskegon Chronicle
Courtesy: Muskegon Area District Library
The Allegan County News and Gazette
Courtesy: Allegan District Library
The Hastings Banner
Courtesy: Hastings Public Library / The Hastings Banner
Thank you to all the viewers who sent in pictures. If you have pictures from the blizzard of ’78, you can email them to email@example.com.