In late January of 1978, Indiana and the Great Lakes region experienced a blizzard so historic that it became the standard by which all other winter storms are measured. An entire generation learned to say “You think THIS is bad? You should have seen the storm in ’78…”
On January 24th, two powerful jet streams converged over the Midwest and set the third lowest atmospheric pressure ever recorded over the Midwestern United States, 956.0 millibars. In one 24-hour period, the pressure plummeted 40 millibars.
Initially the storm began as rain, but escalated quickly, receiving a categorization of “severe blizzard”, the most dangerous classification for a winter storm. In a single day, parts of Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan saw almost four feet (!!) of snow, gusts of 100 mph and wind chill almost sixty degrees BELOW zero.
The only occasions in which lower atmospheric pressure has been recorded are on the East Coast of the United States. During cyclones.
Ranking winter storms from 1900 to today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scaled 500 winter storms. The Great Blizzard of 1978 ranks as one of twenty-six recorded Category 5 storms in the United States. A ranking of 18 constitutes a Category 5 storm. The 1978 storm’s rank? 39.07. Worst. Blizzard. Ever.
Tragically, 71 people died during the blizzard, most of them in Ohio. Although some died of exposure, the most frequent cause of death in blizzards is heart attack, often from shoveling snow.
For the first time in history, the University of Notre Dame in South Bend cancelled classes. Purdue University also cancelled classes, only the third time the university has done so since its founding.
The Indianapolis International Airport cancelled all flights only a half-hour after the storm hit because of white out conditions. Soon, Indiana’s capital shivered under 60 mph winds and -60 degree wind chill.
On the second day of the storm, Governor Otis Bowen decreed a snow emergency for the entire state. The Indiana State Police declared ALL roads in the state closed. The excessive wind and flat terrain of northern Indiana did little to slow drifting snow. In some places, the drifts grew to nearly 20 feet in height.
Recollections of the storm differ. Those who were adults remember the storm as a time of stress and even terror. Children, on the other hand, frequently reminisce on digging tunnels through the snow. And, of course, school cancellations.