40 years later: The Great Blizzard of 1978

Grand Rapids blizzard of 1978
A 1978 file photo of giant snow mounds bordering a West Michigan road.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Friday marks the 40th anniversary of one of the biggest blizzards to hit Michigan in recent history. The Great Blizzard of 1978 ranks as the number one snowstorm ever in Grand Rapids and much of the Lower Peninsula, Indiana and Ohio.

The National Weather Service called it a once-in-a-lifetime storm and a benchmark to measure all other severe snowstorms in the Midwest.

The storm began as a result of a relatively rare merger of two distinct weather systems. It started with a very strong storm in the Gulf of Mexico taking a track into Ohio. The day before the blizzard hit, there was widespread rain and fog followed by a quick transition to wicked winter weather.

 

It produced near hurricane-force winds and snow drifts as high as 20 feet in some areas. High winds knocked down power and phone lines, leaving homes in the dark and without heat. The entire Ohio Turnpike was closed as well as most of I-75 in the Lower Peninsula and Ohio.

In about 15 hours, nearly 15 inches of snow was dumped on Grand Rapids. In four days, Muskegon picked up 52 inches of snow. The Traverse City area received about 28 inches. Some schools in West Michigan were closed for nearly two weeks.

Grand Rapids blizzard of 1978
Photo: A 1978 file photo of a car trapped in snow following the historic blizzard.

Seventy deaths were blamed on the storm, including 51 in Ohio. Of those deaths, 13 people were found dead in stuck cars and 13 in unheated homes. More than 125,000 vehicles were abandoned in the storm.

>>Photos: Blizzard of 1978

Viewers who lived through the historic event in West Michigan have shared their experiences on social media.

Storm Team 8 Chief Meteorologist Bill Steffen was one of the only meteorologist on air, providing one of the only information avenues people could rely on. It was the storm that Steffen says made him a household name. He stayed at the station for three days straight.

Bill Steffen and his wife Gayle in 1978.
Photo: Bill Steffen and his wife Gayle in 1978.

“One news anchor came to work on a snowmobile,” Steffen said in his blog.

The impact of the blizzard was felt for months in West Michigan. Steffen said the area experienced its coldest February ever and the fifth coldest March. Snow from the blizzard didn’t melt until mid-April.

The winter of 1978 is the only one to go down as one of the top 10 coldest and snowiest in West Michigan history.