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The 1978 Blizzard Shut Northeast Ohio Down

A semi in Mansfield was encased in the white stuff. (Rose Conaway)

Weather forecasters and street maintenance officials often refer to a winter storm as a "snow event"; it kind of brings to mind a special performance.  Well, forty years ago this week, Mother Nature put on a command performance - the mother of all snow events. 

The storm started in the Gulf of Mexico in late January 1978 and worked its way north. Reaching Ohio, it was reinforced by a blast of arctic cold from the west. Temperatures dropped 30 degrees in 30 minutes. Winds blew continually at 40 to 50 mph. And rain turned into snow.

(Cleveland Memory Project)

"Hah! Snow up to your wazoo," said Cleveland city councilman Michael Polensek.  "We had so much snow, we didn't know what to do with it."

Polensek recalled that all activity downtown came to a halt. Many workers didn't even try to go home, camping out on emergency cots in bus stations, airports and many public buildings, including Cleveland City Hall. Polensek recalls people sleeping under the rotunda.

"I was a freshman councilman, and it was a real baptism for me," he said.

While Cleveland mayor Dennis Kucinich was in Washington,  Joe Stewart, acting mayor Joe Tegreene, and Louis Corsi, ran storm control operations from City Hall. (Cleveland Memory Project)

"It's baptism by fire, that's for sure," said Joe Asher who started his job in Akron's Streets Department that year.

"I thought, 'Wow, what did I get myself into,'" Asher said.  "We had every available unit out on the road. We were picking up doctors and nurses and taking them to the hospitals, it just buried the city."

And a good part of the state. The entire Ohio Turnpike was shut down for the first time in history. 5000 National Guard troops were pressed into service clearing roads and rescuing stranded people. Today, the snow plow operators in Akron are called "snow fighters" and they are sent to do battle by a dispatcher working out of a high tech planning center.

Akron Public Works supervisor, Paul Barnett (no relation), walked through the city's weather command post.  "We've got a 6x6 foot map here which shows our 51 routes," he said.

This maze of screens and computers not only monitor weather forecasts, but the trucks themselves.

"We know where they're at, how fast they're going, what street they're on," Barnett said.  "Is the plow up or down? Are they spreading salt or not and are they putting liquids down or not?"

An Avon Lake home was inundated (Cleveland Memory Project)

Another innovation since 1978 is a new type of ice melting treatment they are putting down on the streets - beet juice.  A number of years ago, farmers who processed beets for their sugar content discovered that the pulpy byproduct of this process didn't freeze, when left out in the cold. It wasn't long before the farmers started marketing this unique substance to street maintenance officials like Paul Barnett who was faced with staggering rock salt costs.

"We probably spend, in an average winter, a million, three hundred thousand for our salt," he said.

He added that mixing in some beet juice allows the trucks to cut back on the salt, which he figures cuts his costs by 25 percent. New trucks, computerized tracking and an environmentally friendly road treatment mark significant advances in the winter war against snow and ice. But, are we really ready for the next Big One? Kent State climatologist Thomas Schmidlin allows that there's been much progress.

"I think emergency management and police and fire and sheriffs are all top notch and probably better than they were 30 years ago," Schmidlin said.  "But, three or four-foot snow drifts still stop everything."

Schmidlin literally wrote the book on Ohio weather. His Thunder in the Heartland, published in 1996, ranks the '78 blizzard as the worst winter storm in the state's history. But, he says, another big snow event back in 1918 provides an interesting comparison.

"We weren't as dependent on electricity in 1918, we weren't quite as dependent on automobiles or airplanes, and there weren't as many people," he said.  "So, that's the interesting question: are we more vulnerable or less vulnerable as a modern society? And I think that in many ways we're more vulnerable."

Schmidlin figured it would take local and state government a couple days to dig out.  It took about a week, 30 years ago so, it's probably a good idea to be prepared. He recommends having at least a small stockpile of food and medical provisions at home, just in case.

"These kinds of storms come about once or twice a century," said Schmidlin.  "And it's likely that most of us will see another one in our lifetimes."

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.