That one time in Michigan: When we had a great blizzard

(Image via Unsplash)

By Karel Vega

January 3, 2024

Remembering one of the most powerful winter storms to hit the Mitten.

This winter season has been odd in Michigan so far, with a distinct lack of snowfall. With a lot of ‘Ganders wishing for some snow right about now, it’s the perfect time to revisit a moment nearly 46 years ago when the state experienced one of the most powerful winter storms in its history—bringing much of the Mitten to a standstill.

Here’s the story of the Great Blizzard of 1978. Let’s get started.

Tracking the blizzard

The story of the Great Blizzard begins in late January 1978, during a winter that had already been fiercely frigid. In many areas across the US, the 1977-1978 season was one of the coldest since record-keeping began.

The closing days of January saw snow falling in the Great Lakes Region on Tuesday, Jan. 24. Just as soon as that snow system was wrapping up Tuesday evening, the National Weather Service issued a Special Weather Statement: “Another Winter Storm Threatens Lower Michigan.”

As the Detroit Free Press reports, what would turn out to become the massive winter storm the Great Lakes Region would see in the coming days resulted from two different weather fronts in the US: single-digit temperatures coming from the north and moisture climbing from the south.

A graphic showing the two storm systems that would merge to create the Great Blizzard. (Source: weather.gov / Mark Torregrossa)

By Wednesday evening, a heavy snow warning was issued for the Lower Peninsula, along with a Travelers Advisory for parts of the state.

That Wednesday night saw a mix of rain and snow in the state as warmer air from the southern US crept north, but that rain wouldn’t stick around for long.

Despite the primitive forecasting tools of the time, forecasters did an “admirable job” forecasting the massive blizzard, according to weather historian William R. Deedler. And their most significant warning was about to be issued.

Also see:

The Great Blizzard comes to Michigan

A person tries to free their car from snow following the Great Blizzard of ’78. (Source: National Weather Service)

On Thursday morning of Jan. 26, 1978, the NWS’ Ann Arbor office issued the following special weather statement: “A Great Storm is Upon Michigan.”

As the heavy snow fell, strong winds over 35 mph created whiteout conditions across the state. Temperatures in eastern Michigan ranged from zero to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The Great Lakes Region became paralyzed as air and land travel came to a standstill. Drivers became stranded on roads across Michigan.

In a case of unfortunate timing, employees with the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Ann Arbor had just set up in a new office the week before the storm hit. Most employees at the office still lived in Metro Detroit and were cut off from the office for 18 hours, leading to several employees working double shifts, not just to make up for the missing employees but because they were stranded, too.

Conditions began improving on the morning of Friday the 27th, and a full cleanup and assessment could begin.

The blizzard was so bad that President Jimmy Carter declared Michigan a disaster area, according to the Detroit Free Press. Federal aid was offered to hire contractors to help clear the streets.

In the Detroit area, around 170,000 houses lost power over the course of the storm as power lines were snapped by the snow and strong winds.

Over in West Michigan, all roads in Allegan, Ottawa, and Kent counties were closed by the Michigan State Police for a time as crews struggled to clean up. Snowmobilers with the Zeeland Civil Defense made dozens of runs to get supplies to residents stuck at home.

NWS Ann Arbor Meteorologist in Charge C.R. Snider wrote the following in a summary of the event:

“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.”

Over the course of the storm, snowfalls across the state included 30 inches in Muskegon, 19.3 in Lansing, and 19.2 in Holland. Metro Detroit saw less accumulation at 8.2 inches, mostly due to the rain that fell before the storm.

After all was said and done, forecasters said the storm was rivaled only by the Great White Hurricane of 1913 for its strength.

While the storm had ended, winter was still in full effect that year as the NWS recorded below-normal temperatures throughout February 1978.

Author

  • Karel Vega

    Coming from a long background in public radio, Karel Vega strives to find stories that inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The ‘Gander, Karel served as managing editor at WKAR, the NPR affiliate in East Lansing, Michigan.

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