Blizzard of ’78 memories vivid 40 years later

Herald file photos
National guardsmen Leroy Welp peered from the driver's seat of a 14-ton, full-track armored personnel carrier used by the guard to get to inaccessible areas of the county during the 1978 blizzard. Today marks the 40th anniversary of the storm.

By BILL POWELL
bpowell@dcherald.com

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Blizzard of ’78, a deadly storm that paralyzed much of the state with howling winds and road-blocking drifts.

It was on this date — it was a Wednesday in 1978 — when Indianapolis forecasters issued their first blizzard warning for the entire state. There were 20-foot snow drifts, 50 mph wind gusts and temperatures that plummeted from 36 degrees to zero overnight. The National Weather Service says the epic snowstorm had little equal in the climatological record for Indiana.

More than 70 people lost their lives across the region because of the storm, including five souls in Kentucky, 11 in Indiana and 51 in Ohio.

Kenneth Saunders, a resident of Pendleton northeast of Indianapolis, told the Associated Press that “nothing quite compares to that winter of ’78.”

Saunders recalls riding a snowmobile to nearby Fortville to get groceries to sustain his family during the storm. “Fortville was basically a ghost town,” he said.

But, by this time, the memories of the long ago storm for some may be a mishmash of what happened in January 1977 and January 1978.

Both were historically brutal.

En route to deliver milk for a stranded family, national guardsmen Don Forester and John Wilson disembarked from the armored carrier they were manning to make sure the vehicle had a solid road to maneuver around a stranded 4-wheel-drive vehicle while on a rural Dubois County road.

January 1977 had 21 days with lows in the single digits or below, including 14 in a row. There was 22.5 inches of snow that month and one seven-day stretch where the average low was minus 13 degrees, including a record low of minus 24 degrees on Jan. 19, 1977 (tied with Jan. 21, 1985, and Jan. 24, 1963, for the coldest recorded temperature in Jasper in modern history). There were only four or five days during the entire month when class was in session.

But the entire winter of 1976-77 finished with a total of 23.86 inches on the books.

The winter of 1977-78 would end with 30.75 inches of snow, making it the fourth snowiest on record in Jasper.

The blizzard itself on Jan. 25 brought only 2 additional inches of snow but, given the cold, 50 mph wind gusts and snow already on the ground, the storm brought activity to a virtual standstill.

Gov. Otis Bowen ordered the entire state to stay home in a proclamation allowing only emergency vehicles on the roads. In Jasper, between Jan. 13 and 31, there were 10 days with at least some snowfall, including 13.25 inches that had fallen prior to the blizzard. The average low from Jan. 10 until the end of the month was 11.5 degrees in Jasper.

A high school wrestling match at Tell City was halfway over on Jan. 25, 1978, when the blizzard hit in full force. Seventeen people with Jasper High School’s wrestling team and about 10 fans were stranded at a Tell City motel.

Christine Buechlein, 12 years old at the time, worked with friends to clear a patch of ice to throw a skating party and build a fire to roast hot dogs in the woods near their homes on Howard Drive in Jasper. Watching from the back is Dave Kreilein.

John Rumbach, co-publisher of The Herald, said one of his first thoughts was how to get enough people into The Herald to print a newspaper.

“As of Jan. 25, 1978, The Herald had never not been printed — an 83-year streak,” Rumbach says. “Driving was impossible because streets and roads had 3 to 5-foot snow drifts slicing through them.

“Fortunately, several people lived close enough to the newspaper to walk, including myself. Not that walking was easy. The wind and cold were bone-chilling. Visibility was low. I remember walking through the people-less Square, a ghost town made all the more eerie by white-out conditions. I took a few pictures — but they showed only gray shadows of cars and buildings.

“We did print the newspaper, but couldn’t deliver it.”

Bev (Weyer) Schulthise, who has spent more than four decades at the Ferdinand Town Office, was a town utility clerk living with her parents in Ferdinand and taking night classes at the University of Southern Indiana at the time of the blizzard.

In those days, she says, people did not stay glued to the TV watching radar. She took off for school in Evansville that Wednesday only to arrive to find classes canceled.

“Nobody knew exactly what was going on with the weather back then, I don’t think,” Bev says. “You didn’t have the kind of communication you have now.”

The calm after the storm left Dubois Countians with some bitter memories — and some enjoyable scenery as well. This photo was taken along what was known as Old Blessinger Road between Huntingburg and Jasper.

Dubois County had snow drifting from 6 to 8 feet on highways during the blizzard. The National Guard used 11 heavy-duty military vehicles locally to answer innumerable calls to help stranded motorists and homeowners.

Bev’s boyfriend and future husband, the late Gary Schulthise, was working as a commercial artist in Evansville. She made it to his apartment and was stranded there for a couple of days until roads reopened.

The National Weather Service’s Joe Nield, in an article for today’s 40th anniversary of the blizzard, called winter storms “deceptive killers.

“Treat them with the respect due the situation,” he wrote. “Respecting their power may just save your life.”

Nield advised being prepared before winter storms strike. His advice:

Have a preparedness kit in your home and a survival kit in your vehicle.

Do not venture out when conditions are hazardous.

Pay attention to forecasts and warnings from the National Weather Service and information from the local media.




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