Remembering the Great Blizzard of 1978

The Great Blizzard of 1978 paralyzed parts of the Midwest, including northern Illinois, for several days. The snowstorm caused significant damage and disruption and brought life to a standstill for thousands of people. The storm disrupted transportation and communication systems and caused widespread power outages. Travel was nearly impossible, and many small towns were dealt with impassable roads and downed phone and power lines. 

The blizzard caused an estimated $1 billion in damages, with heavy snow collapsing roofs on homes and businesses. Heavy snowfall and strong winds also destroyed crops and killed livestock. Some areas in nearby states received more than 30 inches of snow, with more than a foot falling in Chicago. Peak wind gusts were registered at 54 miles per hour in the city. The storm’s widespread swath over the Midwest and Ohio Valley produced dangerous and deadly conditions, including 70 deaths, many from people freezing in their stuck vehicles. 

The severe blizzard was the result of a rare merger of two systems that caused rapid intensification of a surface low pressure system moving north from the Gulf Coast into Kentucky and Ohio. The massive storm system produced some of the lowest pressure readings ever recorded in the U.S. mainland not associated with a hurricane. 

In Chicago on January 26, 1978, over seven inches of snow came down before dawn, with more snow falling during the day. Winds near 50 miles per hour created snow drifts as high as eight feet, and the Stevenson Expressway (Interstate 55) was shut down from Cicero Avenue west to the DuPage/Cook County Line. The storm reminded residents of the blizzard of 1967, which occurred on the same January day 11 years earlier and dumped nearly two feet of snow on the Windy City. 

Stories abound from those who were stuck or impacted by the blizzard. Laura Williams of Danville was nine months pregnant and expecting her son at any time. She lived in the hard-hit area near the Illinois/Indiana border in Westville, which is just south of Danville. The main road to the nearest hospital was down to one lane, and she recalled that family members joked about practicing delivery methods in case delivery had to come at home. Thankfully, those emergency measures were not needed, and baby Rickey was born safely on February 6. In a story from February 2008, the Danville Commercial News outlined several other unforgettable stories from the blizzard. 

The Great Blizzard of 1978 had a lasting impact. In its aftermath, many towns and cities in northern Illinois adopted new emergency preparedness plans and implemented new technologies to help better respond to future winter storms. It also changed the way people thought about winter storms. 


Photo Credit:
Western Illinois University