You know how dramatic the weather forecasters are these days. ”If the temperature falls below freezing, the wind shifts six degrees and picks up considerably, we could be in for heavy snow. Stay tuned to this channel for ongoing weather alerts that may save your life.” Back in the day, it wasn’t like that, partly because the weather forecasting equipment wasn’t as good, but mostly because television executives had not invented the strategy of keeping people tuned in by warning that a life threatening weather event was imminent. Thus, the blizzard of 1978 took most people by surprise.
As I returned home from teaching school on January 24, I observed my neighbor diligently shoveling a half-inch of flakes off his driveway. Had he known what was coming, he wouldn’t have bothered. A massive blizzard was on its way. Had Bonnie and I watched the eleven p.m. news, we would have learned of the impending storm, but like much of Michiana, we went to bed without a clue.
What we didn’t know was that “a relatively rare merger of two distinct upper level waves” was going to cause “an explosive intensification of a surface low-pressure system moving north from the Gulf Coast.” Along with heavy snow there would be “winds gusting from 50 to 70 mph, causing snowdrifts of up to 25 feet.”
What was never explained to my satisfaction was why these two upper level waves couldn’t just go about their business, whatever their business was, instead of insisting on merging. And If you are a low pressure system and your name is Gulf Coast, why don’t you stay down south where you belong?
The phone rang about 6:00 Thursday morning. It was a worker from the daycare in Elkhart that Bonnie managed. She advised Bonnie to stay home and pleaded with her to close the daycare because of the heavy snow that was falling. Bonnie looked out the window and noted that we had received a good six inches and snow was still falling, but it wasn’t anything different than many winter days. Her daycare opener told her that the storm was moving in from the East and would soon reach South Bend. In addition, she said, all schools and most businesses in Elkhart were closed, plus police were ticketing people who ventured out on the roads.
This all seemed like a bit of overreaction on the part of Elkhart, but Bonnie had no reason to disbelieve her colleague. When Bonnie called the home office in Chicago, they would not give permission to close the daycare center. By this time the storm had reached South Bend, and it was obvious that it was more than just heavy snow. Eventually, the Chicago office acquiesced, allowing Bonnie to relax. All area schools had long before shut down.
The wind blew violently throughout the day, and snow just kept on coming. We could see very little out the windows because the wind had plastered snow all over the glass. In the afternoon, I went outside to check the depth of the snow. It was halfway between my knees and my hips.
The next morning the sun shone on a polar landscape. The gusty wind had caused the snow to be distributed unevenly. In some places there were patches of grass showing while in other places the wind had built drifts up to the roof. Bonnie and I quickly started phoning our friends to inform them that our yard contained the biggest snowdrift in Michiana. We impressed no one, as each of our friends asserted that our snow drift could not possibly be as high as theirs.
We would have told them to drive over and see for themselves except for the fact that no one was driving anywhere, not even four-wheel drive trucks. Even snowmobiles had limited use. Helicopters were the only sure way to go anywhere. That’s not true. You could walk, but it was a tough slog.
I didn’t know it then, but schools were going to be closed for two and a half weeks. Another thing I didn’t know was the meaning of the term “cabin fever.” I was going to learn. All of Michiana was going to learn.
Books about natural disasters:
Isaac’s Storm: The Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 by John M. Barry
The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America by Timothy Egan
The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
The Worst Hard Time: The Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan
The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death by John Kelly
A Crack in the Edge of the World: The Great California Earthquake of 1906 by Simon Winchester
Pompeii: A Novel by Robert Harris
The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina by Douglas Brinkley
Tsunami: Hope Heroes and Incredible Stories of Survival edited by Joe Funk