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Bugging in for Severe Weather: 1978 Blizzard

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The people of Ohio and the Great Lakes region know about winter storms and the snow and ice that they bring. Back in January 1978, weather forecasters warned of a gathering blizzard, but many dismissed it as just another winter storm.

As the clouds gathered, many people failed to prepare adequately for what turned out to be one of the worst blizzards ever to hit America.

It began with an area of low pressure over the southern US which combined with an Arctic cold front moving across the Appalachians. The jet stream and the polar stream fueled the weather system and pressure dropped by an astonishing 40 millibars in 24 hours resulting in some of the lowest pressure ever recorded in a non-tropical area of the US.

Cleveland after blizzard

Whiteout Blizzard

As the weather system headed for Ohio, rain turned to snow and the storm was given the highest classification, that of severe blizzard. In a freak combination of conditions the storm was trapped over New England for some 36 hours with snow falling at a rate of up to 1-2” an hour.

In that time, there was widespread chaos. A bad storm a few days previously had already resulted in deep snowfall and extensive damage to properties and infrastructure. People had expected simply more of the same, and on the whole had failed to anticipate the severity of the new blizzard.

Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and southeast Wisconsin were badly hit, with the latter experiencing 40” of snow. Canada was also affected, with over 28” and even as far away as London there were 16” of snow and 80mph winds.

As road conditions became impossible people were trapped in cars. Winds of up to 100mph caused huge drifts which almost buried some homes. In Ohio, wind chill temperatures dropped to -60°F and 51 people died, mostly from exposure.

A state of emergency was declared in Michigan where Traverse City was effectively closed. Airports also shut, as did the Ohio turnpike, which had never before been closed. Almost all transport simply ceased.

Those stranded in cars suffered from exposure and some died from asphyxiation when their tailpipes became blocked beneath the snow.

Even those who were trapped in their homes suffered from exposure when heat and power failed.

While storms of this magnitude are thankfully rare, another one will almost certainly occur one day and those who will fare the best are those who have prepared well.

Bugging in

These days, weather forecasting is far more accurate than it was 40 years ago. If a major blizzard is predicted, take it seriously. As soon as the forecast is out, you should plan on getting yourself and your family home quickly and staying there.

To survive as comfortably as possible in freezing conditions in a home with no power or water takes a little advance preparation. Do this now and you’ll avoid a last minute scramble round stores filled with people all after the same equipment.

Before you even start thinking about what supplies you need, look carefully at the condition of your property. Is it in good repair? How strong is the roof? It might be perfectly adequate on a damp day in May, but if snow is falling at a rate of 1-2” an hour, how much weight are you confident it can bear?

Once you’re happy that the fabric of your home is secure, you will need to address the following issues:

  • Water
  • Food
  • Heat
  • Power
  • Sanitation
  • Health

For other longer-term bug in situations you should also look at communications, light and security, but for storm purposes it is sufficient to focus on the above.


It is always a good idea to have a store of water available for use in an emergency. As a rough guide, allow a gallon per person per day for drinking, cooking and washing. In blizzard conditions, access to snow shouldn’t be a problem. Melt and purified snow before use, either by the addition of fresh bleach at a ratio of 8 drops per gallon, or by using a good quality portable water filter, such as the SurvFilter, which relies on nanotechnology to remove the tiniest particles of contamination.


For short-term use, it’s fine to stick to meals that require little or no preparation. While you wouldn’t want to survive for lengthy periods on military ready meals or dehydrated foods, when you’re snowed in without power these are an acceptable and simple choice.

Canned foods offer more variety and are equally simple to prepare. They can also provide a good balance of carbohydrates and protein and allow you to tailor meals to suit all family members.

Dried foods such as rice and lentils will require a safe cooking source. Be very careful of fumes when cooking inside. You can use a small gas cooker, preferably in a ventilated area.

Even if you decide not to bother cooking food, it can be very comforting to have a hot drink in extremely cold conditions.

Heat and light

Woodburners are useful and attractive heat sources, but it is essential that the chimney is completely clear before they are lit. In the event of heavy snowfall you will almost certainly have to unblock the flue and keep checking that it remains clear.

When choosing a woodburner, look for one that allows you to boil water and cook on it as well.

A top tip is to invest in battery-powered carbon monoxide monitors. Make sure they are regularly serviced and that they have fresh batteries in them at all times. Do this by rotating the batteries from the monitors when you need batteries for something else. Then replace the monitor batteries with fresh ones. Even with carbon monoxide detectors in place, you should still remain vigilant when it comes to anything likely to emit fumes.

Invest in a handful of battery-powered lamps. Those that also use solar and/or wind-up energy are a good choice. While candles can be useful in an emergency, they are a big fire risk and if you do have to use them, never leave them unattended. The fire service are unlikely to be able to reach you while weather conditions remain poor.


For those who can’t do without power, or who just enjoy the comfort it offers, there are generators available in a range of sizes.

The biggest are able to supply the whole house and have an automatic transfer switch meaning that when the power cuts out, the generator kicks in seamlessly.

There are a number of drawbacks, the main one being the cost of installation. It’s a complicated process requiring many safety checks and procedures. Generators can be noisy and regulations may require them to be below a certain decibel level and also a certain distance away from other properties.

Any accompanying fuel tanks will also be subject to strict rules about placement. Large volumes of natural gas, liquid propane or diesel need to be safely stored, well away from the home. You would also need to ensure you had enough fuel to last throughout a power cut, or consider cutting down on power consumption for the period. Recent major storms caused several days’ power outage, for example Katrina at 23 days plus, Irene at 8 days and Sandy at 13 days.

Smaller portable generators are widely available and if this is the best choice for your family it is wise to make sure you have one in place well before the storm is forecast. Once the weathermen start predicting a big whiteout, stores sell out quickly. Buy well in advance and you’ll have plenty of time to make sure you know exactly how it works.


When temperatures plummet, pipes freeze and water supplies run out. This means no flushing toilets or washing facilities. Use two sturdy buckets with lids for toileting and make sure you have heavy-duty refuse bags to line them. Allocate one bucket for solids and one for liquids.

If you’ve organised a good store of water of a gallon per person per day, everyone will be able to have a brief wash. Antibacterial wipes are great for keeping hands clean in between washes when water is short, but to keep your family healthy and comfortable, washing with water is invaluable.


Put together a comprehensive first aid kit. It’s usually better to build your own, tailoring it to your family’s likely requirements, than to purchase a pre-made kit.

Consider including the following:

  • Antiseptic liquid
  • Antiseptic ointment
  • Alcohol wipes
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Gauze pads for dressing wounds
  • Bandages, including vet wrap
  • Maxi pads for absorbing blood
  • Medical tape
  • Band aids
  • Steri-strips
  • Support bandages
  • A sling
  • Pain relief such as ibuprofen – include a children’s version for under 12s
  • Anti-diarrheal medication
  • Electrolyte replacement sachets for dehydration
  • Antihistamine ointment
  • Antihistamine tablets, including a junior version if necessary
  • Eye wash and eye bath
  • Thermometer
  • Disposable gloves
  • Tweezers
  • Scissors
  • Battery-powered torch
  • Water purification tablets
  • Hydrocortisone cream

As well as putting together a kit, you should know how to use it. It makes sense for a couple of family members to undertake a good first aid course. In a crisis the knowledge will give you confidence and the ability to make the right decisions.

In addition to the first aid kit, you should have a supply of any pharmaceuticals your family regularly takes. Ask your doctor for an extra prescription and explain what it will be used for. Switch for a new supply every time you receive one – using the oldest medication first.

If anyone is reliant on medical equipment powered by electricity, make sure your emergency power supply can cope.

In summary

Disasters often come out of the blue. When they do, people panic and it is difficult in that situation to put together a plan and the supplies to accompany it. Preparing for a crisis might not be your top priority on a sunny summer’s day. But if you put in the time and effort now you can relax in the knowledge that should you be stranded at home, you and your family are likely to be safe and comfortable.

Make comprehensive lists of everything you think you could need. Discuss your priorities and start putting together emergency stores. Refer back to your lists and your plan of action from time to time and check whether anything has changed, make sure your supplies remain viable and update as needed.

No-one knows what is around the corner. If and when trouble comes, you’ve done everything in advance that you possibly could have done, so you’ll be starting from the best possible position.

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