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The Great Blizzard of 1978

One of the Worst Winter Storms in US History


Can you imagine?… You just made your way home through a blinding snowstorm and now you have to dig down through a foot of snow just to reach the lock on your front door. Two years before Kalamazoo’s devastating 1980 tornado, a storm of a different sort brought much of the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley regions to a standstill. People still refer to this historic winter storm as the Great Blizzard of 1978.

Blizzard of 1978
Kalamazoo Mall, January 26, 1978. Kalamazoo Gazette photo

Wednesday the 25th of January began like most mid-winter days in Michigan with calm winds, cloudy skies, and typically cold temperatures. But late that evening the snow began to fall and the winds began to pick up. By the early morning hours of January 26th, many roads were already impassable. Clearly this was no ordinary snowstorm.

Come dawn, temperatures were in the 20s as relentless snowfall was being driven by hurricane-force winds. Wind chill factors plunged well below zero. Many businesses remained closed for the day, save for a few grocery and convenience stores. Classes were canceled at most area schools, including Western Michigan University.

cross country skiers on South Street, January 1978
Cross country skiers on West Michigan Avenue. Kalamazoo Gazette photo.

Strong sustained winds out of the northwest caused extensive drifting. Most east-west roads were soon blocked, including I-94 where dozens of stranded motorists took refuge inside nearby Wings Stadium. Thursday night temperatures dropped into the teens and the wind chill plummeted to 60 below zero.

By Friday, Downtown Kalamazoo resembled a Wild West ghost town with wind-driven snow taking the place of sand and tumbleweeds. Massive drifts blocked Michigan Avenue as street lights and signs swayed wildly in the gale. Not a soul was to be seen on the typically busy streets and sidewalks. Except for the howling wind and the sound of an occasional snowmobile, the world was strangely silent.

Kalamazoo blizzard of 1978
Snowmobiles near Bronson Hospital. Kalamazoo Gazette photo.

Cars and trucks were rendered useless as they lay buried beneath deep mounds of frozen white powder. Walking was difficult at best and at times virtually impossible. Those who needed provisions ventured out cautiously, many making use of snowshoes and cross-country skis.

News coverage during the storm was limited. Video equipment was heavy and awkward during the pre-home video era, so television coverage was minimal. The Kalamazoo Gazette missed three days of publication due to travel restrictions, so many area residents had no idea what their world looked like.

After days of relentless snowfall and driving winds, Saturday morning brought a glimpse of the sun and affirmation that the storm had passed. Bus service returned and the Kalamazoo airport reopened, but citizens were still encouraged to stay off the roads so the snow removal process could begin.

Blizzard of 1978
WMU students play in the snow. Kalamazoo Gazette photo.

The Great Blizzard of 1978 is often remembered as one of the worst blizzards in US history. The third lowest non-tropical atmospheric pressure ever recorded in the mainland United States occurred as the storm passed over southeast Michigan. The National Weather Service called it a storm “of unprecedented magnitude,” a winter storm of the most severe grade.

In the end, the Kalamazoo area saw more than two feet of snow, driven by days of northwesterly winds that reached 60 mph or more. Massive drifts up to seventeen feet deep in places brought much of the region to a complete standstill. According to the National Weather Service, “about 20 people died (in Michigan) as a direct or indirect result of the storm.” Several local businesses saw their roofs collapse under the weight of the snow, including a portion of the West Main Mall. Temperatures stayed in the teens long after the storm passed so the snow drifts lingered. Weeks later folks were still digging out.

Written by Keith Howard, Kalamazoo Public Library Staff, November 2020.

Sources

Articles

“Snowplows Go On The Attack”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 29 January 1978, p.1, col.1.

“Blizzard’s Big Blitz Sends Area Reeling”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 29 January 1978, p.1, col.4.

“A Great Storm Is Upon Michigan – The Great Blizzard of 1978”

National Weather Service Detroit/Pontiac, MI. 21 January 2003.

“Remembering the Great Blizzard of 1978, when Michigan took a deadly hit”

MLive. 25 January 2019.

“The Blizzard of 1978!”

Bill Steffen. WOODTV.com. 26 January 2020.

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