On Jan. 26, 1978, our worst storm in history was no match for our brave citizens.
Photographer Stan Myers and I were in his Jeep at the Square downtown. We watched as hurricane-force winds tore down the traffic lights, smashed store windows and turned street signs into flying Ninja weapons.
I was on the police beat that morning and awoke to not roaring but screaming winds. The day — etched into my brain 35 years ago today — was Jan. 26, 1978, the Great Blizzard.
The blinds on our windows were shaking. I heard a crack, and there went our front awnings, another crack and there goes the tree. And the phone was ringing.
At this moment, the barometric pressure, registered in Cleveland, was 28.28 inches, lowest ever recorded on the mainland U.S. until the Upper Midwest Storm of Oct. 26, 2010. The 28.28 spawned our worst storm in history.
Unflappable City Editor Jim Weber was calling. “Don’t go outside. Watch for the circulation truck. Don’t try to drive. It’s nuts.” Click.
In about an hour, I was in the front seat of the rambling truck with three other reporters lumbering around 10-foot snow drifts in 60 mph sustained winds and minus-50 wind chills. A block of stores was on fire downtown. The freeway was clogged by dead vehicles. Electrical wires were setting fires everywhere.
The radio was not the usual WHBC morning talk. It was on EB, Emergency Broadcast, life-threatening messages only. All streets were closed. The mayor, sheriff and governor declared emergencies at the same time. The National Guard was rolling. The Red Cross, bless them, was marshaling volunteers. All firefighters and police in the county were on search and rescue. Snowplows led the engines and squads to alarms.
The Rep office was the only sign of life downtown. Our night shift advanced the deadline and got the paper out just before the storm broke. Incredibly, most of our 1,700 carriers risked their lives to deliver it. We saluted them in an editorial the next day.
Phones and power were blowing out all over town, but downtown, the lines are underground and held. Jim cranked up the news machine and we soon sounded like a paper on overdrive.
Stan and I could not help ourselves. We did a drive-around. Photos were impossible, horizontal snow obscured everything. And then we discovered something. Our town was fighting back.
Anyone with a four-wheel-drive was asked to report to the Police Department. From there, they were dispatched to hundreds of houses damaged by the storm. They set up a shuttle to the Civic Center, where dozens more Red Cross volunteers were pouring coffee and aiding the victims.
Father Robert Coleman was there, blessing cot to cot. He told me, “It’s a miracle how the people who need us are getting through. They are in God’s hands on this day.”
Page 2 of 2 - One man woke up in his bed outside as a gust blew off his second floor. An elderly woman almost froze to death before firefighters found her under her living-room couch. They saved her, and her little dog, who huddled in her arms at the center and chewed a Red Cross dog biscuit. (The Red Cross is always prepared.)
Our coverage shifted from the disaster that struck to the community that proved its mettle. The storm continued all day. More heroes: The line crews working in the wind. Fishers Foods stayed open all day handing out bread and milk and selling groceries and batteries. The weather guys at the airport found room for, “It doesn’t mean anything to us, but it’s 80 degrees today in Buenos Aires.”
Nature kicked in our front door that day, but our town kicked it right back. Two days later at Mellett Mall, we saw “I Survived the Blizzard of 1978 — Canton pride!” The T-shirts sold out in 18 minutes.