The Big White Out

By Ed Staskus

   When I was a kid growing up in Sudbury, Ontario it started snowing the last day of summer, snowed through Halloween Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then got down to business on New Year’s Day. The next day it snowed some more. It kept up its business until April with a fire sale now and then through the month of May. All told between 100 and 140 inches of snow fell every winter during my childhood. 

   My father built an igloo in the back yard so that when we were snowballing, we would have someplace to shelter if a blizzard suddenly roared down from the Northwest Territories. My brother sister and I sat inside on crates looking out of windowless windows as dark heavy clouds put the boom on us. When Canadian Pacific trains hauling nickel rumbling past on top of the cliff face behind our house on Stanley Street wailed, we wailed right back. 

   Snow cover in Sudbury starts to build in December and remains deep through most of January to mid-March. By the end of April, the snow is usually gone. The city is free of snow every year during July and August. Extreme cold and winter storms kill more Canadians than floods, lightning, tornadoes, thunderstorms, and hurricanes combined.

   A year before I was born the Great Appalachian Storm in November dumped nearly a foot of snow on my hometown every day for a couple of days. A blustery wind made sure everybody got their fair share. Ramsey Lake froze solid. My father who wasn’t my father yet went skating. He wasn’t able to get to the INCO mine where he worked as a blaster, but he was able to get to the lake. When the snowfall was finally cleared, it was December.

   After we moved to Cleveland, I sent a postcard to my friends back on Stanley Street saying Americans were snowflakes. “They complain about a couple of inches. Most days there isn’t nearly enough snow for decent sledding.” In general, snowfall in northern Ohio is about 50 inches a year. Twenty years later I had to eat my words.

   The Blizzard of 1978 started in Indiana near the end of January. The Hoosiers might have kept it to themselves, but they didn’t. The day after the storm buried their state it buried Ohio. More than a foot of snow fell in one day, on top of a foot-and-a-half that was already on the ground. The wind huffed and puffed. Snowdrifts buried cars trucks homes businesses. The wind chill made the outdoors feel like 60 below zero. East Ohio Gas pumped record amounts of natural gas to hungry furnaces.

   My parents were living in Sagamore Hills. When the weather cleared up, they called me about the snow on the roof of their ranch-style house. My father was afraid the snow load would damage the roof, maybe even make it cave in. I thought he was exaggerating, until my brother and I climbed a ladder to see for ourselves. The roofline was long and low-pitched. We found ourselves thigh-deep in thickset snow. We spent the rest of the day slowly pushing it over the side of the overhanging eaves.

   “My dad made me shovel a path out the back door for our dachshund so he wouldn’t do his business in the house,” Joe Bennett said. “I got about two feet out and called it a day.”

   The storm was characterized by an unusual merger of two weather systems. Warm moist air bumped into bitter ice-cold air. “The result was a very strong area of low pressure that reached its lowest pressure over Cleveland,” the National Weather Service reported. That day’s barometric pressure reading of 28.28 inches is the lowest pressure ever recorded in Ohio and one of the lowest readings in American history.

   By the end of the month, a few days later, Cleveland tallied 43 inches of snowfall for the month, which is still a record breaker. It was called “The Storm of the Century” or simply “The Superbomb.” The wind averaged nearly 70 MPH that Thursday. Gusts hit 120 MPH-and-more on Lake Erie. Ore boats coming down from Lake Superior hunkered down, and crewmen stayed close to oil heaters. “I was a deckhand on a lake freighter,” said August Zeizing. “We were stuck in ice about 9 miles off Pelee Point when the storm hit. We had steady 111 MPH winds gusting up to 127 MPH for about six hours. Our orders were to stay below decks and keep our movements to a minimum.” 

   More than 50 people died, trapped in dead cars and unheated houses. A woman froze to death walking her dog. Over $100 million in property damage was estimated, what many said was a conservative estimate. The governor called up more than 5,000 National Guardsmen, who struggled to reach the cities they were assigned to. The Guardsmen used bulldozers and tanks outfitted with plows to clear roads streets highways and rescue the stranded.

   “My dad and I drove down I-71, which was closed, to get to our farm in Loudonville,” said Paula Boehm.  “We had chains on all four tires of our Buick station wagon.” The only other traffic was National Guard M113 personnel carriers. “We made it.”

   Car owners stuck homemade signs saying “Car Here” on top of mounds of snow. It alerted snowplow drivers to what was under the big pile of white. Motorists abandoned their cars and pick-ups helter-skelter style. There was often no visible sign of a car. It was a three-dog Siberian day night and the next day. In some places it went on and on, often in the dark, as power wires were blown loose or sagged off poles from the weight of ice.

   I was in Akron the morning the storm struck. I had no idea what was on the way. The forecast the night before didn’t sound awful. “Rain tonight, possibly mixed with snow at times. Windy and cold Thursday with snow flurries.” I was visiting a friend, had stayed overnight, was driving my sister’s 1970 Ford Maverick, and needed to get the car back to her that day.

   National Weather Service Meteorologist Bob Alto got to work at six in the morning Thursday at the Akron-Canton Airport. He didn’t go home until Sunday night. “Nobody could get in and nobody could get out,” he said. “The roads were all closed. There were three of us and we had to ride it out there at the airport.” Cessna and Beechcraft two-seaters were flipped over on aprons and tarmacs like paper airplanes.

   Meteorologists didn’t call the storm a “Superbomb.” They called it a “Bombogenesis.” It was their term for an area of low pressure that “bombs out.” 

   I got up early and got going. When I did the temperature started falling fast. By the time I got coffee and an egg sandwich and got on I-77 to go home the temperature had fallen from the mid-30s to the mid-teens. The rain turned to ice and snow, snowing like there was no tomorrow. I couldn’t see any lane markers and could barely see the road. The Maverick was a rear wheel-drive with no traction to speak of. I kept it at a steady 25 MPH unless I slowed down, which I did plenty of. Spun-out cars and jack-knifed tractor trailers littered the interstate. One truck and its trailer were flipped over on the shoulder. When I passed the Ohio Turnpike, I saw it was closed, the first time it had ever happened. I found out later that I-77 was the only highway that didn’t close. 

   Marge Barner’s husband-to-be drove a yellow bus full of kids to school as the blizzard set up shop. He dropped them off. Not long afterwards he got a call saying the school was closing. He went back and that afternoon started plowing parking lots. “He was out for 13 hours in an open tractor and ran out of gas several times. He didn’t have a radio to call for help.” He had to help himself, walking with a can to gas stations. “He lost feeling in his arms when he got home, which finally came back as he warmed up. His ears were frostbitten.”

   I kept on slow poking north. I had plenty of gas, having filled up the tank the night before after noticing I was driving on fumes. When I spotted a station with cheap gas, I pulled in on the double. The car radio was no help, broadcasting the same bad news over and over. The car heater wheezed and groaned but stayed alive. Driving in the swirling snow hour after hour straining to see and stay on the road was nerve-wracking. I kept my gloves on and my eyes glued to the road.

   “I was 7 years-old and we lived in a drafty, old farmhouse in Fremont,” said Susan Beech. “The power went out, so the furnace went out, but our oven ran on propane, so it still worked. My dad set up cots and sleeping bags in our kitchen, and stapled blankets over the doorways. We ran the stove around the clock, leaving the oven open so the heat filled the room. It was like winter camping in the kitchen.” 

   After I passed the overturned truck I thought, if that happens dead center on the road somewhere in front of me, I am a goner. I am going to end up in a miles long traffic jam. ODOT’s plows won’t be able to get around the mess. Wreckers won’t be able to get to the wreck to move it out of the way. We will all be at a standstill and run out of gas and either freeze or starve to death. I saved half my egg sandwich for later. I checked my gas gauge and was relieved to see I still had near a full tank.

   “I was a teenager living four miles from the nearest town during the 1978 Blizzard,” said John Knueve. “We lost power the first night and had to rely on a small generator, which could power just one appliance at a time.” They fed the generator drops of gasoline at a time. “A two-lane state highway ran in front of our house, but even when they finally managed to clear it an 18-wheeler would pass by, and we’d never see it for the thirteen fourteen-foot drifts which encircled the entire house. We were trapped for most of a week before my brother-in-law made it down with his tractor to break through.”

   In some parts of the state massive snowdrifts as high as 25 feet buried dog houses sheds garages and two-story homes.

   I got close to Cleveland before nightfall. I-90 looked closed, so I took St. Clair Ave. to Lakeshore Blvd. to North Collinwood. I lived two blocks from Lake Erie. When I pulled into my not shoveled out driveway the Maverick got stuck. I didn’t try digging it out. My sister would have to wait for her car. Spring was only two months away, anyway.

   It was even windier and colder in our neighborhood than the rest of the world. The furnace was trying, but the house stayed cold no matter how hard it tried. I wrapped myself up in a comforter. The windows rattled and the house shook whenever a hurricane-force blast of wind hit it. 

   “Oh, that was awful,” Mary Jo Anderson said about the high-pitched howl of the wind. “Nobody slept much that night. We had never heard that kind of noise. You know, how your house rattles and squeals.” Her husband, Rich, set off in his Ford Pinto for work that morning. The Pinto wasn’t the ugliest and most unsafe car ever made, but it was a close call. The seats made for sore asses after an hour-or-so and God forbid getting rear-ended. The gas tank had a design flaw that made it liable to explode on impact and incinerate everybody in the car. Two years earlier news had broken that Ford’s policy was that it was cheaper to pay the lawsuits of fire victims rather than fix the car before production. After that there was hell to pay.

   Rich was about a mile up the road in his Pinto when he was brought to a standstill. He couldn’t drive any farther because the wind was so ferocious. The car was a lightweight, barely breaking two thousand pounds. “The ice was on the window of his car, and he was trying to reach his arm out and scrape the ice off,” Mary said. “He opened the car door, and the wind almost ripped it off. The car spun around in a circle. The door wouldn’t close. He had to hold it shut and drive home. He was happy to make it back.”

   That night I watched the WEWS Channel 5 news show. There wasn’t a lot of footage of the storm even though a film crew had gone searching for news on deserted downtown streets. “It was impossible to see. Wind howling. Bitter, bitter cold,” Don Webster the weatherman said. “They couldn’t shoot anything because of the cold and wind. I couldn’t even talk because I got so cold. I couldn’t say anything.”

   When I changed the station to WJW Chanel 8, Dick Goddard called it a “white hurricane.”

   The 4-speed Chevy Chevette was a basic reliable car that wouldn’t kill you if you got into a fender bender or a hurricane. It was what Susan Downing-Nevling drove to work. Her boss was mad because she hadn’t made it in on Thursday, even though she told him people couldn’t get to their cars because the wind was blowing them down as they tried to walk to their vehicles. 

   “So, Friday I got up, dug my car out, and drove to work on W. 44th St. and Lorain from Middleburg Hts. I didn’t stop once but it still took me four hours. When I got there, it was closed. A couple of others who made it and I went to the Ohio City Tavern for the afternoon.”

   When the storm moved on that weekend it moved northeast, hooked up with a nor’easter, and walloped New England, as well as New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Instead of “Superbomb” it was called “Storm Larry.” Philadelphia saw 16 inches of snow, Atlantic City 20 inches, and Boston was buried by 27 inches. The ice snow wind killed almost 100 people and injured about 4,500. It caused more than $500 million in damage.

   Once it was all over local stores started selling t-shirts that read, “I Survived the ’78 Blizzard!” I didn’t buy one. What would have been the point? It wasn’t going to keep me warm and dry if the blizzard came back. I was hedging my bets. The Blizzard of 1978 might have been “The Storm of the Century,” but there were 22 more years left in the century. I wasn’t expecting to see it’s like anytime soon, but you never can tell. 

   If you want to see the sunshine you have to weather the storm.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”