Blizzard of 1978: Looking back on Ohio's big winter storm
Editor's note: Originally published in 2008 for the 30th anniversary of the storm.
The original forecast sounded harmless enough: "Rain tonight, possibly mixed with snow at times. Windy and cold Thursday with snow flurries."
People who went to bed early missed the bulletins at 9 p.m. Wednesday. They woke up to a screeching nightmare.
A monster storm with hurricane-force winds slammed into Northeast Ohio early Jan. 26, 1978, spreading an icy coat of death and destruction.
Photos: Looking back at Ohio's Blizzard of 1978
The Blizzard of 1978, often called the Storm of the Century, killed more than 50 people in Ohio and caused at least $100 million in damage. Local residents will never forget the big storm of 30 years ago.
Retired meteorologist Bob Alto, 71, of Massillon, recalls arriving at work at 6 a.m. Thursday at the National Weather Service at Akron-Canton Airport. It became his home for the next 58 hours.
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"Nobody could get in and nobody could get out," he said. "The roads were closed. So I couldn't be relieved. There were three of us there: myself, Phil Martin and Ed Heath. We rode it out there at the airport."
The trapped weathermen witnessed a record-breaking blizzard. The center of the storm was west of the airport. Around the clock, the trio updated forecasts, issued radio warnings and maintained contact with sheriffs in Summit and Stark counties. They barely had time to nap.
What made the Blizzard of 1978 the Storm of the Century
Despite earlier projections, a low pressure area from North Dakota collided with a low pressure area from the Gulf of Mexico. Warm moist air slammed into bone-chilling cold. A satellite photo revealed a giant swirl of clouds over Ohio. It looked like a white hurricane.
Atmospheric pressure fell like a rock. A barometer registered 28.33 inches at 3:47 a.m., the lowest reading ever recorded at Akron-Canton Airport.
The weather service's barograph, a drum-shaped instrument that keeps track of barometric pressure, needed two charts for the measurement.
"Our trace on our barograph went down like a funnel," Alto said. "It looked like a big, sharp V. It just went straight down and it came straight up. But we had to change the chart because it was going off our chart. So we had to recalibrate it and put another chart on to get the rest of the trace."
Rain turned to ice and snow as the temperature plunged 21 degrees -- from 34 to 13 -- between 5 and 6 a.m. Temperatures hovered around zero but the wind chill made it feel like 60 below.
How much snow fell during the Blizzard of 78?
Howling winds tore off roofs, knocked down trees and blew out windows. Thousands lost power, heat or phone service. The airport recorded a peak gust of 76 mph at 5:12 a.m., followed by sustained winds of 35 to 40 mph for the next 15 hours.
Nearly a foot of snow fell on top of a 16-inch storm from days earlier. The wind caused freakish drifts that swallowed cars.
'We had never heard of that kind of noise'
Mary Jo Anderson, 61, of Springfield Township, remembers the high-pitched wail.
"Oh, that was awful," she said. "Nobody slept much that night. We had never heard that kind of noise. You know, how your house rattles and squeals."
Her husband, Richard, tried to go to work that morning. He made it about a mile up the road in his Ford Pinto, but he couldn't drive any farther because the wind was too ferocious.
More: The Blizzard of 1978 was a legendary storm in Ohio, but it started as a dull forecast
"The ice was on the window of his car and he was trying to reach his arm out and scrape the ice off," she said. "He opened the car door and it almost ripped the car door off."
The vehicle spun around. Richard Anderson held the door shut and drove home.
"He was happy to make it back," Mary Jo Anderson said.
Road crews could not keep up as blowing snow made streets impassable. Many motorists abandoned their vehicles.
Airports, schools, factories, offices, stores and other businesses closed. The Akron Beacon Journal published an edition, but delivery was nearly impossible.
Jack Edwards, 86, of Stow, remembers making it to his Goodrich job, only to discover that the building didn't have heat. Workers were sent back home on the treacherous roads.
"There was a large amount of snow," he said. "The wind velocity was so high and so steady that it just drifted absolutely, unbelievably deep."
To make matters worse, his home lost power and heat. He and his wife, Donna, huddled around a fireplace. "For a day or two, we were cooking with a little two-burner Coleman stove in the garage," he said.
'Something I will never forget'
Kevin Murphy, 56, of Barberton, described the blizzard as "something I will never forget."
"You literally had to hold on to things if you were going outside," he said.
He recalls watching in disbelief as his neighbors tried to put out their trash. "As soon as they set the bag down, it just took off," he said.
Murphy's family toughed it out with blankets when the furnace conked out. His son, 4, and daughter, 9 months, stayed cozy, but Murphy had to venture into the deep freeze. "I remember getting a phone call that day from my dad who worked at Ohio Bell," Murphy said. "He said, 'Hey, what are you doing?' I said, 'Well, we're trying to stay warm.' He said, 'Can you come down and get me?' "The next thing Murphy knew, he was creeping along the Akron Expressway on a white-knuckle drive in a Chevy Nova. He made it downtown safely and used jumper cables to start his dad's car. "I told him, 'If I didn't love you, I'd kill you,' " he said with a chuckle.
Ruth Kohari, 87, of Akron, was a registered nurse working 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. at Barberton Citizens Hospital. The snow was deep around her home near Summit Lake.
"My husband (George) was working days at Goodrich," she said. "He had to shovel out to get to work. Then he came home and he shoveled out so my daughter (Marta) could get in from the university. Then he shoveled out again so that I could get out and go to work."
Road crews had been out all day and night. Kohari, who grew up in upstate New York, was no stranger to snowstorms.
She had no trouble driving.
"As a rule, most of the night shift made it -- by hook or by crook," she said. "It was always busy on the medical floors during the winter. I worked a ward that had 42 patients."
It took several days to dig out from the Blizzard of 78
The winds slowly began to diminish overnight. Blizzard warnings turned to travelers' advisories before dawn Friday. Bob Alto was able to leave the airport by 4 p.m. Saturday.
It took Ohio residents several days to dig out. National Guardsmen rescued thousands of stranded people. Survival stories emerged from the frozen wasteland. A Cleveland truck driver was trapped for six days in a giant drift near Mansfield. He survived in his cab by eating snow.
Utility crews worked overtime to restore services. Kevin Murphy, who had been interviewing at Ohio Edison just before the blizzard, landed a job there soon afterward. He remained for nearly 25 years.
The blizzard helped make January 1978 the snowiest month in Northeast Ohio history. Akron-Canton Airport broke a record with 37.5 inches.
Meteorologist Alto kept the 1978 barograph charts as souvenirs and later let his grandkids borrow them for school projects.
The Blizzard of 1978 was one of the biggest calamities during his 34-year career -- along with the 1963 Palm Sunday tornadoes and the 1990 Shadyside floods.
"I remember it very clearly," he said. "It was quite an event."
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Blizzard of '78: Looking back on Ohio's big winter storm