Even before it was over, the folks in Fulton County knew it would be one for the record books.
Now known as the Blizzard of ‘78, the brutal snowstorm that began the previous night as rain paralyzed the area 40 years ago, on Thursday, Jan. 26, 1978, dumping 17 inches of snow and bringing with it near hurricane-force winds.
Residents battled 12-foot high snow drifts, and transportation was limited to snowmobiles and four-wheel drive vehicles. State highway trucks sent out to battle the snow became stuck, and visibility in 70-plus miles per hour wind gusts was reduced to zero. Fulton County Sheriff’s Department deputies were placed in every community by Sheriff Lester Trigg to oversee recovery operations.
Despite all the effort, the Fulton County Disaster Services Agency (DSA) and the sheriff’s department declared the county in a state of emergency the morning of the blizzard. A ban on travel was not lifted until the following Monday, and telephone circuits became overloaded even after residents were asked not to place calls except for emergencies.
Surprisingly, unlike those in surrounding counties, no Fulton County residents lost electrical power.
According to a special combined edition of the The Wauseon Republican and Fulton County Expositor, the Ohio Turnpike was closed, and emergency crews rescued more than 60 people stranded there. DSA volunteers manned telephones 24 hours daily until the following Tuesday, ultimately taking 60 pages of notes from stranded residents requesting assistance.
An Air National Guard helicopter was used by the Fulton County Health Center to transport patients. They included 22-year-old Kevin Demaline of Wauseon, who was whisked to Medical College Hospital in Toledo following a snowmobile accident.
On a side note, the county newspaper reported that two women in Wauseon decided to venture out into the bedlam in their cars the following Monday and became mired in snow at the Fulton Street railroad crossing. Each was fined $150, and their cars were impounded.
Larry Sluder, who served as Wauseon police chief during the blizzard, remembers the chaos well. Now a resident of Georgia, the 75-year-old said the city was at a standstill, and one of the city’s main arteries, Shoop Avenue, was deserted. “You couldn’t see a car anywhere,” he said. “The only thing moving was snowmobiles.”
City rescue operations were coordinated with Mayor Richard Volk, and included a shelter with cots for people stranded by the storm and the police department’s use of an Army surplus vehicle it had previously purchased. Sluder said the vehicle became a godsend in the case of a woman on Ridge Road who went into labor. She was successfully transported to FCHC.
All city police officers were called to duty, and patrolled the city in that vehicle and on snowmobiles, staying over two or three days at the station during off-hours. Fortunately, Sluder said, nothing serious transpired during the blizzard or in the ensuing days, and the police received very few calls.
“Nothing was moving. Everybody was home. People were snowed in,” he said.
With a laugh, Sluder said that, at first, included himself. The only way out of his own home was to shovel himself out through the garage door.
“It was something different,” he said of the blizzard. “Everybody worked together. That’s the way Wauseon was. The people in town were real helpful to each other.”
Rhonda Garman of Swanton was a student at the University of Toledo, living in Parks Towers. The blizzard froze pipes at the dormitory, leaving working restrooms on only the bottom two floors, where Garman had a room.
“We got tired of listening to the (constant) flushing, so we walked over to a friend’s apartment – on top of the snow,” she recalled. “We never sunk in because there was an ice layer on top, but I think it was three feet deep. Our parents were mad that we walked over there in the middle of the blizzard.”
Cathy Hefflinger of Napoleon remembered that snow filled the driveway of her tri-level house. “We had snow everywhere. We were living at the edge of town, and no way into town, no way out of town,” she said.
A construction company behind her home was contracted to plow the city streets, “so we got plowed out right away, but we couldn’t go anywhere.”
Her family was fully stocked with food and comforts to ride out the storm, and didn’t experience freezing pipes or loss of electricity. Hefflinger and her husband both lost work days, and cabin fever set in among them and their two children.
“They wanted outside, and I think before long we put them outside,” she said, laughing. “We’ve not had snow like that since.”
Sluder said over his lifetime he’s never since experienced weather quite like the Blizzard of ‘78. “I was born and raised in Ohio, and that’s the worst snowstorm I’d ever seen,” he said.
Reach David at 419-335-2010