Looking back on the blizzard of ’78 that paralyzed the north

by Peter Jakey–Managing Editor
Friday, Jan. 26 was an anniversary for Michigan. It marked the 181st year that the Wolverine State has been part of the union. For eight years, it was the largest state in the United States. That was until Texas joined in 1845.
Friday marks another anniversary, too, when a Texas-sized blizzard paralyzed the Great Lakes region, much of the Midwest and Ontario.

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It’s when the great blizzard of ’78 dumped as much as 30 inches of snow on parts of Presque Isle County.
The late Willard Schaedig, superintendent of the Presque Isle County Road Commission at the time, reported the snow at 26 inches deep at the road commission headquarters in Rogers City. However, 30 inches was measured in a clean, protected area in Millersburg.
“I remember they had to get a loader. I don’t know where the road commission got it from, but they opened U.S.-23 past me toward Alpena because it was drifted over so deep,” said Don Rygwelski, who would start working at the road commission in 1994. “It took me two days to get to 23. It’s a 300-foot long driveway. I used a shovel a little bit and use my pickup a little bit.”
Current road commission superintendent/manager Jerry Smigelski was still in high school and remembers not being able to celebrate his 18th birthday, Jan. 27. The end of Smigelski Road was socked in and we could not go anywhere.
“We were snowed in for several days,” he said. “Nowadays, with better equipment, that does not happen anymore. It might be  the second day of a snowstorm when the plows get it, but typically now, we try and get into every road at least once the day of a storm. We don’t get the snowfall we did years ago, it seems, even though we do get heavy snowfalls.”
M-33 and M-68 were closed for a short period during the height of the storm, but local crews were able to keep state and primary roads open during the worst of it.
While there are several contenders for the worst blizzard ever to hit the Great Lakes, including the early spring storm of 2002 that brought 18 to 31 inches, the immense and intense blizzard of Jan. 26 to 27, 1978, ranks at or near the top, according to William R. Deedler, National Weather Service historian. He said another big one that is right near the top is the Great White Hurricane of 1913 with its similar track and power.

Many faced the chore of tunneling out after the blizzard dumped tons of snow on the region in 1978.
Many faced the chore of tunneling out after the blizzard dumped tons of snow on the region in 1978.

Friday, Jan. 27, 1978, Gov. William Milliken declared it the worst blizzard in Michigan history. Many highways were still plugged and 750 National Guard personnel were sent to the Upper Peninsula to provide help. The governor urged President Carter to declare the state a disaster so the Army Corps of Engineers could be used to open up roads and restore power.
The great blizzard of 1978 evolved out of a winter that was infamous for cold and storms. 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 warmers winds from the deep South.
“About 20 people died as a direct or indirect result of the storm, most due to heart attacks or traffic accidents,” stated C.R. Snider, who was the meteorologist in charge in Ann Arbor. He wrote a summary about the storm, Jan. 30, 1978.
“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.”
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, Ohio.
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. South Bend, Indiana received as much as 36 inches from the entire event.
Back in northeast Michigan, Presque Isle County schools were open the following Monday, while other schools in surrounding counties were still closed.
With improvements in technology, Smigleski believes people are more in tune with the weather conditions.
“Now, everybody has a smartphone with Doppler radar on it, so you can see it coming across the state,” said Smigelski. “My foreman uses it religiously. It helps them look at the hourly forecast and temperature forecast and see when would be a good time to put the salt down.”

It was not snow, but ice that caused road hazards this year. Layers of ice closed schools for two days this week, but made for some beautiful scenery. (Photo by Richard Lamb)
It was not snow, but ice that caused road hazards this year. Layers of ice closed schools for two days this week, but made for some beautiful scenery. (Photo by Richard Lamb)

The total snowfall for the winter season of 1977-78 was 134.4 inches, said Smigelski.
Winter was not yet over by any means as the month of February (after the storm) was brutally cold across much of country that year. The below normal temperature departures of February 1978 were strikingly similar to that of January 1978 and in some places, February was actually colder.