Remembering the Blizzard of January 1978

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COLUMBUS (WCMH)–The weather turned mild and damp on January 25, 1978. The high temperature in Columbus rose to 41 degrees, and 0.65 inch of rain fell. And yet, there was a harbinger of a change in the air—except no one could have anticipated just how dramatic and deadly it would be.

January 1978 was a very wintry month; a record 28 inches of snow had already fallen in a series of four winter storms, much of that snow lingering on the ground because the temperature remained well below freezing for two solid weeks.

Light rain was falling on Tuesday evening, January 25, in central Ohio, when reports of an impending snowstorm blared across the media. No one was sure just how bad it would be.

Then came the downpours, with thunder and lightning, Low pressure was deepening at an explosive rate over the Deep South—with a central pressure comparable to a small hurricane—as the storm raced northeastward directly over Ohio before dawn.

By daybreak on January 26, 1978, Ohioans awoke to a stunning winter scene unlike anything most had ever witnessed—at least since the Blizzard Bowl storm of November 1950, which had enveloped the Ohio State football game against Michigan.

A raging blizzard was in progress statewide, whipping 6 to 12 inches of snow into deep drifts as high as the second story homes in the northwestern portion of the state. The wind reached 69 mph at Columbus, and gusted past 100 mph over Lake Erie near Cleveland.

Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes declared a state of emergency, urging residents not to attempt travel in the midst of the blinding snowstorm that gradually tapered off on January 26. Yet the wind continued to whip the snow into mountainous drifts, some as high as 10 to 25 feet.

An estimated 175,000 residents lost electricity for several days, and schools and businesses would remain shuttered for nearly a week. More than 5,000 national guardsmen were called up by Governor James A. Rhodes to help clear 31,000 miles of roadway, and rescue trapped victims in their cars and homes.

The Ohio Army National Guard placed the number of Ohioans rescued at more than 10,000 by truck, and another 2,700 were picked up by Ohio Air National Guard helicopter flights.

Fifty-one Ohioans perished in the storm, nearly half while leaving their vehicles that had become stranded. Bitterly cold weather in the days after the storm compounded the unprecedented winter hardships faced in the wake of the Great Blizzard of ’78.

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