From the Washtenaw County Road Commission
Where were you during the Blizzard of 1978?
It was certainly a storm for the history books and one that many retirees at the Washtenaw County Road Commission remember well.
The storm started as rain on the evening of Wednesday, January 25 before it turned to snow and continued through Thursday and Friday. The worst of the snowfall was on Thursday, one article from the Ann Arbor News claimed snow fell at an inch-per-hour throughout Thursday.
In total, parts of Washtenaw County received approximately 18” of snow. To make things worse, the wind was gusting at 50 mph, causing massive snow drifts, and the temperature never rose above 15 degrees.
The County Emergency Operations Center declared a “snow condition red”, the most serious warning of its kind, limiting road use to essential traffic. President Carter eventually declared a Federal State of Emergency in Michigan. Washtenaw County was the fifth worst hit county in the state.
The blizzard impacted the county in a variety of ways. The state highways in the county were shut down for days. More than 200 motorists were stranded on I-94. Four days after the snow had stopped, crews were still trying to dig out US-23, it was closed south of US 12 to the Ohio border.
The trucking industry was hit hard. Nearly 150 semi-trucks were stuck at Wolverine Truck Plaza at Baker Road in Scio Township. There were so many trucks that 50 had to park along Baker Road after the truck lot filled up. Local snowmobilers started arriving with “black market beer selling for $12 for a 12-pack” to supply the stranded truck drivers.
Conditions were even worse in the Manchester area, with snow drifts 20 – 30 feet high, it was taking 6-8 hours to dig out 1.5 miles of road.
As you can imagine, this was a very difficult time for the staff at the Washtenaw County Road Commission as well. Mike Anderson, the WCRC director at the time, estimated it would take 10 days to restore roads to a normal condition.
Judy Humble remembers this storm well. Judy’s husband, Bob, was a WCRC foreman in charge of crews in the Ypsilanti area during the winter of 1978. Judy remembers that Bob didn’t come home for 3 – 4 days after the storm hit. He and his team had been sleeping for just a few hours each night in their trucks and then heading back out. Bob finally made it home but brought his entire crew with him. A surprised Judy fed these exhausted drivers whatever she had. After dinner, they went to sleep on the Humble’s floor. After just 5 hours of sleep, the team was back on the roads continuing to fight the snow.
Dick Miller participated in a lot of emergency response during his 25-year career with WCRC. He remembers a string of bad storms in the late 1970s, including the Blizzard of ’78. In January of 1978, he had just been made foreman, supervising the state trunkline crew. That meant Dick oversaw WCRC crews plowing I-94, US-23, US-12 and other MDOT routes in the county. He had been in his new position for less than a month when the blizzard hit. He remembers the challenges faced by the crews due to the snow, extremely cold temperatures and wind.
Robert Peebles also remembers the storm. He was a permit coordinator and weighmaster for WCRC. During the blizzard of ’78, he was called in to help answer radio calls at the Sheriff Command Center. He had to get a ride from someone with a snowmobile to get to work. It was the most memorable storm of Robert’s 27-year career.
Icy conditions lasted for days before all the roads could be cleared. While the final numbers vary, this storm easily cost WCRC, the county and local communities more than $1 million.
Blizzard of ’78 By the Numbers
1,000 people were stranded throughout the county
There were 20 to 30-foot-tall snow drifts in rural parts of the county
700 people took refuge in shelters set-up in various schools and churches across the county
3,800 man-hours by National Guard troops helping clear the area. 3,000 tons of salt used by WCRC crews to try and melt the ice that had formed on all the roads. Five babies were successfully delivered after their mothers were helped to the hospital by WCRC and other emergency crews.