40 years later: Remembering the Great Blizzard of 1978 in Southeast Michigan

By Ken Haddad, Paul Gross - Meteorologist

Image credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

DETROIT - It's been 40 years since a powerful blizzard dropped more than a foot of snow in Southeast Michigan, establishing itself as one of the more memorable weather events in recent history.

The Great Blizzard of 1978 not only brought heavy snow totals - but also hurricane force winds. The storm brought traffic - both in the air and on land - to a complete standstill.

Here's more on the storm from William R. Deedler, National Weather Service historian:

As with the huge snowstorm of December 1974, another even more powerful (in terms of intensity/extent) storm is of strong interest to all meteorologists who have studied winter storms in the Great Lakes. This storm is also of interest and remembrance to many longtime residents of the Great Lakes, the Upper Ohio Valley and Ontario, Canada who had to deal with winter's full fury late in January of 1978.

In addition, the storm certainly casts many memories for those of us who were on duty and worked during the storm...while being in awe of the development and subsequent immense strength of this great monster. With the 30th anniversary of this Great Blizzard at hand, it is worth taking a step back in time to re-live this monumental example of nature's fury.

While there are several contenders for the worst blizzard ever to hit the Great Lakes in relatively modern times (since 1870 when records began in Detroit), the immense and intense Blizzard of January 26-27th 1978 must rank at or near the top along with the Great White Hurricane of 1913 with its similar track and powerfulness.

The incredible Blizzard of January 26-27th, 1978 evolved out of a winter that was infamous for cold and storms. The Winter of 1977-78 thus far had been one the coldest, since records began, in many areas from the Rockies eastward to the Appalachians. Mammoth blizzards occurred late in January and early February from the Midwest to the East Coast as strong Arctic plunges dove south into the country and met up with the warmer winds from the deep south.

The winter of 1977-78 was similar to its predecessor (1976-77) in terms of cold. The main difference between the two winters, however, came in February. In 1977, temperatures moderated rapidly during February, while in 1978, the cold actually worsened - with several locations reporting their coldest recorded February to date.

The Winter of 1977-78 is written down in the record books as Detroit's seventh coldest winter, Flint's fifth coldest and Saginaw's sixth. West of the Rockies, it was a different story as a dominant upper ridge of high pressure provided a relatively mild winter, with some stations even reporting one of their warmest winters on record.

Record 24 hour snowfall totals from the storm included, 16.1 inches at Grand Rapids, 15.4 inches at Houghton Lake and 12.2 at Dayton, OH. Snowfalls for the entire storm (25-27th) included a whopping 30.0 inches at Muskegon (some of which was Lake Michigan enhanced), 19.3 inches at Lansing and 19.2 at Grand Rapids. Snowfalls were less over Southeast Lower Michigan (mainly because of the rain that fell for a period) and included 9.9 inches at Flint and 8.2 inches at Detroit.

The following is a quote from the summary written about the storm by Meteorologist in Charge, C.R. Snider on January 30th, 1978 at the National Weather Service Ann Arbor:

"The most extensive and very nearly the most severe blizzard in Michigan history raged throughout Thursday January 26, 1978 and into part of Friday January 27. About 20 people died as a direct or indirect result of the storm, most due to heart attacks or traffic accidents. At least one person died of exposure in a stranded automobile. Many were hospitalized for exposure, mostly from homes that lost power and heat. About 100,000 cars were abandoned on Michigan highways, most of them in the southeast part of the state."

Here's some reflection on the storm from Local 4's Paul Gross:

I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing forty years ago today.  But the story actually begins on the night before.  I was a junior at the old Bloomfield Hills Andover High School, and I had a bunch of exams that week.  I knew that a snow storm was imminent, and every hour that evening I called the free number to the recorded National Weather Service forecast line, which also included the current conditions.  

The reason I kept calling was because the barometric pressure was dropping like a rock, and I was jotting down the new pressure reading at the top of every hour.  I forget when I finally went to bed (I think it was 1:00 a.m.), but I got up the next morning expecting not to have school.  I went downstairs, and my mother was in the kitchen keeping track of the school closings on both radio and TV.  

As they laboriously read down the list of closings, neither my mother nor I heard Bloomfield Hills Schools!  We listened to the list twice, and never heard it.  I asked her what to do, and she said to assume that I had school that day.  So I put my coat on, and stood at the front door watching to see if a bus would come down the street (my house was exactly in between two bus stops, so I’d definitely see the bus stop at the stop before my house).  

Sure enough, through the snow I saw some headlights in the distance and, yes, it was my bus!  I grabbed the huge stack of school library reference books I had checked out that had to be returned that day, and I’m not exaggerating when I say this:  my two hands were as low as possible holding the books, and I compressed the stack with my chin pushing down on the top to keep them from spilling over.  I slowly made my way down the driveway, and I remember that the snow was just below my knees, but I don’t remember if that was due to drifting or not.  

Regardless, when I got to the bottom of the driveway, I waved to the bus driver as he passed my house so he knew I was coming, and he waited for me at the next stop.  Needless to say, there were very few kids on the bus that morning!  When I got to school, I remember seeing my sophomore and eventual senior year math teacher, Mr. Mauer of blessed memory – one of my all-time favorite teachers – in the hallway, and he was not bashful about expressing how ridiculous it was that we had school that day. Of the 1200 or so students that attended Andover, only 100 of us actually came to school that day.  

Naturally, an announcement was made that we’d all be bussed home during second hour.  I later found out that we were one of only two school districts in all of southeast Michigan that didn’t cancel that morning.  While I don’t know this for a fact, I remember hearing on multiple occasions that the superintendent was out of town, and that the next-in-command wasn’t sure what to do.  I don’t know if this is true or not, but that’s the story everybody was hearing.

By 1978, I had long-ago decided that I wanted to be a “Channel 4 weatherman,” and the Blizzard of ‘78 just further intensified that interest.  Little did I know then that, only three years later, I would be an intern here at Local 4 and, two years after that, hired as a part-time “weather helper” working with Mal Sillars and, later, Chuck Gaidica forecasting big snow storms like the Blizzard of ’99 and the Super Bowl Snowstorm of 2015.  

How ironic that this month, forty years after the Blizzard of ’78, I am now celebrating my thirty-fifth year here at Local 4, and now serve as the senior member of the news team’s on-air staff.  Time flies, but you never forgot those big weather moments…and you don’t have to be a meteorologist for those events to create a permanent notch on your own personal timeline.

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