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Posted on Sun. Jan. 20, 2008 - 03:00 am EDT

An abominable blizzard

For those who remember 1978, this rare, terrifying event remains benchmark

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•To describe your experiences in the Blizzard of ’78, go to

www.journalgazette.net, click on “The Board” in the lower-right corner of the home page, find the “Local news” link and click “Blizzard of ’78 stories.”

The triple threat brewing into a major storm Wednesday, Jan. 25, 1978, had meteorologists on high alert. High wind, bitter cold and snow – lots of snow.

National Weather Service meteorologist Joseph Nield can explain the technicalities that led to the infamous Blizzard of ’78: A weak low-pressure system over the Gulf Coast combined with two upper-level low-pressure systems, one over the Southwest and one coming southeast over Canada.

It’s simpler to use the word his colleagues have for such storms: Bombs.

Bombs usually form in other parts of the country, not the Midwest. Nor’easters, which routinely hit the East Coast, are typically bombs, Nield explains.

“It’s a relatively rare phenomenon,” he said.

So rare that the storm forming over the Midwest would be dubbed the Cleveland Superbomb, because the pressure observed at Cleveland was the lowest recorded in the U.S. outside a hurricane.

The blizzard in the days that followed set the bar that all others have been judged in the 30 years since – and found lacking. A February 2007 blizzard drew some comparisons, but “we haven’t even come close,” Nield said.

Wednesday, Jan. 25, 1978

“The whole state is shut down, and it’s going to get worse.”

– Indiana State Police spokesman

At 3:45 p.m. in Indianapolis, forecasters did something unprecedented – they issued a blizzard warning for the entire state, upgraded from a heavy snow warning.

As the snow kept piling on that night, 20-year-old Anita DeSelm counted her blessings that she had made it home from her manager’s job at L&K Restaurant in one piece.

The restaurant at Lafayette Center Road and Interstate 69, near the current GM plant, was fairly isolated, and DeSelm wasn’t too keen on getting stranded there.

No one was more surprised than she when she found herself returning to work the next day.

Someone in the tiny Marathon gas station next to the restaurant called her home, pleading with her to come open the restaurant. About half a dozen people were stranded at the gas station.

“They were out of potato chips,” DeSelm said.

DeSelm, though she lived only seven miles away, had no way to get there in her own car. A nearby farmer picked her up in an “unbelievably huge” tractor and took her to the restaurant.

DeSelm brought blankets and towels and ended up spending several days cooking in the restaurant for strangers, including a truck driver who taught her how to play poker.

Fortunately, there was plenty of food on hand, and the restaurant didn’t lose power. DeSelm and her new friends strategically planned for their snowbound stay, first eating the food that was likely to spoil earliest.

They entertained themselves listening to the radio and the jukebox, gathering tidbits of news from snowmobile riders who stopped to buy cigarettes from the restaurant’s vending machine.

“We really had no idea what was going on,” DeSelm said. “But we had plenty of coffee.”

Thursday, Jan. 26, 1978

“The drifts are 20 feet high. You know how long it takes to plow through a 20-foot drift? It can’t be done in a few minutes.”

– Allen County Commissioner Jack Dunifon

When the Midwest woke up Jan. 26, it was to more than a foot of snow, piled into drifts in some places that made even foot traffic impossible for anyone foolhardy enough to brave the zero-degree temperature.

The National Weather Service in Fort Wayne measured 17 inches, a city record. The Indiana Toll Road had closed its entire length overnight when winds had approached 50 mph or more.

Ted Ellis, now mayor of Bluffton, was working for the State Board of Accounts auditing Allen County offices most days in 1978.

Ellis, like the majority of northeast Indiana residents, wasn’t planning to go anywhere, but where his feet couldn’t go, his voice could.

Ellis had worked for the local radio station in high school and college and kept up the licensing needed to go on the air. He called WCRD owner Herman Zeps and offered his services if Zeps could find a way to get him to the station, just eight blocks from Ellis’ home.

Zeps dispatched a volunteer with a snowmobile to pick up Ellis, who made it down Indiana 1 as far as Market Street in downtown Bluffton, when a hard left turn caused Ellis to slide off the back of the snowmobile.

Eventually, the volunteer chauffeur realized he’d lost a passenger, and Ellis made it to the station to help Zeps keep broadcasting. He continued commuting between his home and the station for several days on a snowmobile.

Ellis remembers the late Jim Barbieri, editor of the Bluffton News-Banner, reading the undeliverable newspaper front-to-back over the air every night during the blizzard, including the comics.

Ellis periodically called the sheriff and other authorities to air their predictable comments: “It sure did snow a lot,” and “Don’t go out unless you have to.”

“Of course, the answer was always the same,” Ellis said.

Friday, Jan. 27, 1978

“Today visibility is better. … We’re able to see where we’re stuck.”

– Fred Fiddler, Red Cross manager

The wind died down Friday, but travel would remain difficult, if not impossible.

President Carter declared a federal disaster as grocery stores were cleared of food, and volunteers with snowmobiles made medical runs and delivered essential supplies. Only on Tuesday, Jan. 31, would schools begin talk of resuming classes.

Fort Wayne Mayor Robert E. Armstrong spent four days in his office, which became a hub of constant activity.

“People were grand,” Armstrong said. “They did a magnificent job of helping each other.”

In other northern parts of the state, 40 inches were recorded. The storm killed 80 people in 16 states, including at least nine in Indiana and seven in Ohio.

The blizzard warning meant many people knew the storm was coming, but they didn’t have as much time to prepare as they likely would today, said Nield, of the National Weather Service.

“The information age has been sort of the revolutionary step that has increased our ability to disseminate information to the public,” he said.

In 1978, no one was surfing the Internet for weather forecasts, Nield said. A Jan. 31 Journal Gazette article about the cost of the blizzard speaks to the times: “Clerical workers for the city and the private contractors haven’t reached their adding machines yet,” a city official is quoted as saying.

Today, a three-day forecast is as accurate as a one-day forecast a few decades ago, Nield said.

“It is dramatic,” he said. “We can model the atmosphere better than we ever have before.”

But all forecasting can do is give people more time to stock up on supplies or get to their destination, and warning or not, some things can’t be planned – ask Larry Wardlaw.

Wardlaw’s grandfather, Fred Schwartz, had been transferred from a nursing home to St. Joseph Hospital in January 1978.

He died the day after the storm hit, but no one in his family could get to the hospital. It would be a month before Schwartz could be buried in a Bluffton cemetery, because the snowdrifts in the cemetery made it impossible to find the burial plot.

A week after his grandfather’s death, Wardlaw found a friend with a snowmobile willing to take him from his parents’ near-north-side Fort Wayne home to get a suit for burial.

In the midst of the sadness, Wardlaw recalls a light moment – his father’s request that he stop by the grocery store on his snowmobile trek.

“They ran out of beer in the house,” Wardlaw said.

aturner@jg.net


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