Looking back on the Blizzard of ’78

It was 40 years ago Thursday that a weather spectacle happened like most of us had never seen — and most of us never want to see again.

Wednesday, Jan. 24, 1978, was rainy and warm for mid-winter, but weather forecasters were warning people about snow and high winds coming Thursday. But it’s safe to say most people didn’t understand what the word “blizzard” actually meant.

According to historical accounts (yes, it’s now historical), there was a thunderstorm locally that Wednesday evening. As temperatures dropped, the rain swiftly turned to freezing rain. Ice covered the roads and power lines. And strong winds caused ice-covered tree limbs and power lines to fall, ultimately leaving most of Seneca County without electricity.

As the freezing rain ended, heavy snowfall and high winds followed overnight Thursday, Jan. 25.

The Ohio History Connection says the storm dumped several feet of snow in Ohio.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE SENECA COUNTY MUSEUM Another photo of snow removal on South Washington Street using graders, backhoes and dump trucks.

“With wind gusts at 100 miles per hour in some areas, many referred to the blizzard as a ‘white hurricane.’ Nearly 6,000 people were stranded on Ohio roads. The extreme cold and precipitation caused the deaths of 51 people and resulted in more than $100 million in damage,” the Ohio History Connection account said. “Gov. James A. Rhodes declared a state of emergency, calling the blizzard the ‘greatest disaster in Ohio history.’ The last of the snow didn’t melt in some northern areas of the state until May 5.”

The wind moved snow continuously, making the measurement of snowfall nearly impossible, but virtually every road in Seneca County was impassable. Snowmobiles and four-wheel-drive trucks were used for emergency transportation of ill people and other emergencies. Vehicles stranded along roads were covered by snowdrifts.

The Advertiser-Tribune was unable to print an edition the day after the blizzard because there was no electricity, but A-T reports in following days told about schools, offices and factories being closed.

Tiffin Police Department and Seneca County Sheriff’s Office, both in downtown Tiffin at the time, set up emergency centers.

City and county workers couldn’t help people who simply were cold due to power outages, but they tried to assist people who were ill or otherwise needed emergency shelter.

A Facebook post with this photo said, “From January 25th through the 27th, The Great Blizzard of 1978 hit the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes. During that storm, the barometric pressure of 28.28 inches recorded at Cleveland was the lowest non-tropical pressure ever recorded on the mainland of the United States. It was the worst blizzard ever to hit Ohio and of the 70 deaths related to this storm, 51 were Ohioans. Those who went through this event will remember their own stories forever. The storm hit at 4 a.m. and the snow piled up fast. Drifts stood 6 feet high downtown but the A&P store on West Market Street was open for anyone who could walk there. The photo shows Tiffin’s Public Works Department removing piles of snow along South Washington Street. The windows of the Lasalle’s Store are covered with plywood and the old Commercial National Bank sign is on the left.”

An emergency shelter was set up by the Red Cross in Trinity United Church of Christ. A-T reporters talked to a woman who was at the shelter with her sick baby and was reunited with her husband at the shelter the next day. They also told the story of a blind man who lived alone and was taken to the shelter as well as elderly and other people who needed assistance. There was no total of people who were assisted, but there were still 63 people there a few days later.

At Mercy Hospital — then on Market Street — a “skeleton crew” of employees from the night shift continued working because only a few workers were able to make it to the hospital Thursday. All surgeries were canceled because the hospital was using a limited power supply, and the staff concentrated on caring for and feeding people. Elevators didn’t work, so food trays were carried up and downstairs.

Industry and agriculture also took their hits from the blizzard.

Employees couldn’t get to work, and factories shut down.

A statewide report in The A-T said agriculture suffered $46 million in losses statewide (in 1978 dollars). Seventy percent was the loss of young livestock — mainly lambs and young pigs — and another 25 percent from damaged buildings and equipment. About $1 million in milk was dumped because it couldn’t be transported.

This photo, taken in the alley behind the phone company building on Madison Street, shows the typical height of snow drifts found in the east-west alleys.

Former Tiffin mayor Thomas Yager was in his first term as mayor when the storm hit.

Speaking on the phone last week from his job in Washington, D.C., with the U.S. Department of Transportation, Yager remembered setting up an emergency center in the municipal building.

But that was after he had help getting to his office.

“It started late in the evening with a lightning and thunderstorm, which was quite unusual for that time of year,” he said. “By sunrise, it was so bad I couldn’t even get out of my apartment complex, so the city brought one of the biggest trucks out to take me to city hall.”

Yager said the emergency center operated from a room in city hall.

This photo shows several cars buried under the snow on South Washington Street across from the courthouse.

“Basically, I didn’t leave there for several days,” he said. “We set up cots and basically worked around the clock.”

He said getting people to stay home was the first line of business.

“Initially, we wanted to get the word out to people as to what was happening,” he said. “We did that through the radio. WTTF was great.”

The radio station recorded a message from Yager, which was played frequently, telling people to stay home, stay off the roads and call the emergency center only in case of emergency.

“First, our main concern was to get people to help their neighbors and check on their well-being,” he said. “Then we started helping people with unusual situations.”

The local National Guard unit was activated, but people in the unit had trouble getting to their headquarters, he said.

“We had issues out in the county where people were in dire straits, and the sheriff’s office and others were using snowmobiles to try to get out there and help people,” Yager said.

He said he found it interesting how many private citizens offered their assistance and vehicles.

“We used four-wheel-drive trucks to shuttle people to the hospital,” he said. “Police cruisers couldn’t get through, but people volunteered four-wheel-drive vehicles and snowmobiles.”

Two phone calls stand out Yager’s mind.

“One call I remember was in one of the villages where the phone systems were out, and there was a control room where, if they could get into it, they could solve the problem,” he said.

Yager said he gave local people permission to break into the control room, and the village again had phone service.

Another call came from a lineman from a power company who couldn’t reach his supervisors. The lineman and he and his crew knew how to fix a problem at a substation, but didn’t have the certification to do so.

“I gave them permission to pull the switch and the power was on,” he said. “I just started telling people to go ahead and do things.”

However, Yager said, there were many calls the emergency center couldn’t help with.

“We couldn’t get anyone to them,” he said.

He said there also were some humorous calls.

“We had a call from some folks who said they were out of vermouth for their martinis,” he said. “This was on the second or third day, when people began to get cabin fever.

“Once the worst was over, the main problem was when the sun came out the next day and people wanted to get out and about,” Yager said. “We prohibited any traffic, except emergency vehicles, from coming through.

“People walking began to get in the way a bit, but they were cooperative, so we started the process of hauling all the snow out.”

At that point, he said, a lot of the bars and restaurants started to reopen, and people in town began to walk to where they wanted to go.

“They had blizzard parties and had a good time,” he said.

“It took a couple of days, but I finally got a ride back home,” he said. “I found my front door was blocked by a snowdrift. I had to dig my way back in, and finally got some rest.”

“We got through it,” Yager said. “It was quite an experience.”

He said it allowed the city to test emergency procedures that previously been put in place.

“After that, law enforcement started to buy four-wheel-drive vehicles in greater numbers,” he said.

Sheriff Bill Eckleberry said he was 19 years old and living with his parents during the blizzard.

“I hadn’t started with the sheriff’s office yet. That was a few years later,” he said.

However, like everyone, Eckleberry has his own blizzard story.

“I was an auto mechanic and lived east of town,” he said.

He remembers a pet’s water bowl frozen inside the house.

“That was before we had a wood stove,” he said.

After seeing the state of the roads, he went out to check on his then-girlfriend and now wife, Jean, who lived a fair distance away.

Later, he remembers driving down roads that had 6-8 feet of snow on either side.

“It was definitely different,” he said. “I haven’t seen anything like it since.”

After being without electricity and getting very cold, he said he began to stock a supply of firewood.

Jim Roberts was sheriff in 1978.

“It was just terrible,” Roberts said. “No one knew what the hell a blizzard was. I thought we’d have a little snow and some wind. The plows would take of it.”

On Wednesday evening before it started to snow, Roberts said, he left for a meeting in Bellevue, and his wife kept reminding him the weather was supposed to get bad.

“I went to the meeting and hit a little rain coming back late in the evening,” he said. “The next thing I know I get a phone call early in the morning from a friend who said, ‘Have you looked outside?'”

Tree limbs were falling on power lines.

“It was just like flashes going on,” he said. “Flashes of light. It was the weirdest thing I ever saw, really eerie.”

Roberts said he didn’t try to drive, but walked from his home on Circular Street to the sheriff’s office, which was downtown at the time where the courthouse annex is now.

He said his walk from Circular Street to his office downtown was difficult.

“It was only a matter of walking down the hill and making a left turn,” he said. “I’m glad I was younger then. Let’s put it that way.”

He was 41 years old at the time.

“Of course, they were getting calls from people,” he said. “And we had two deputies stranded out on the road. One in the ditch on one side of the county and another outside of Bellevue.”

Emergency crews helped in any way they could, but in many cases there was no way to get to them.

Robert said he can’t remember the number of people who died locally, but one of the losses was personal for him.

“I lost my uncle, Earl Roberts, in the blizzard,” he said. “He was going to go across the road to the neighbor lady. He went out and got disoriented. He was trying to follow the fence line and he froze to death.”

While city hall was handling many of the emergency calls, his office also handled its share, he said.

“They had the command post for the city and we took the calls for the county,” he said. “Of course, we didn’t have all the modern technology.”

The roads were impassable for most vehicles.

“We’re well prepared in this area with plows and salt, but when the snow drifts are twice as tall as your equipment, it’s bad,” he said. “It was days before some people got power back on. For some it was maybe a week or better.”

In the meantime, emergency personnel depended on volunteers.

“Snowmobiles were really popular right then,” he said. “We’d have been lost without them.”

Volunteers took supplies to people who were stranded with no food.

“They really, really helped out,” he said. “Gene Barto and many like him.”

Although he never knew many of the names, or has forgotten them, he said those volunteers were life-savers.

“He and his friends had their snowmobiles,” he said. “They were actually risking their lives to go out and help others. They were unsung heroes.”

Many calls were from people who had no food.

“We always joke about people raiding the stores for bread and milk,” he said. “I think a lot of that comes from when we had that blizzard. They were just caught unprepared.”

Roberts remembers some not-so-emergency calls, as well.

“People had food, but they couldn’t get the cans open,” he said. “We told them to open them with hammers and tools, but to be very careful because if they got hurt, we couldn’t there.”

Roberts said he didn’t stop to take any photos.

“We were too darn busy to think of it,” he said.

“The main thing is we had no idea what the hell a blizzard really was,” he said. “You just can’t believe it. It educated us on what a blizzard was. We’re fortunate we haven’t really had anything like that since then.”

However, he suggests people remain vigilant on what can happen. As the people who lived through the blizzard get older, he said, it’s a good idea to remind the younger generations.

“I’m 81 now and I was fairly young when it happened,” he said. “They should be very aware of what can happen.

“You can just imagine what it would be like to dismiss school early and have a bus load of children stranded,” he said.

That’s one of the lingering results of the blizzard, he said. School officials are cautious about weather reports.

“It lingers on as far as canceling school and just being extra careful,” he said.

Kerosene heaters became popular in the blizzard’s aftermath, he said, and many people continue to have an alternate source of heat.

“I think a lot of us have forgotten what it was like to actually experience it,” he said. “The drifts on the roads, the unbelievable heights of some of those drifts.”

“And everybody went out and bought hand-operated can openers,” he said.