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COLUMN

Snowbound city stuck it out

The Blizzard of 1978 left nearly everyone stranded.

Saturday, January 19, 2008 - 12:01 am

Editor's note: On Jan. 26, 1978, Fort Wayne residents woke to find themselves buried under what would become up to 2 feet of snow and drifts as high as the eaves on some homes. Accompanied by 50-mph winds, the Blizzard of 1978 left nearly everyone stranded.

The News-Sentinel published a front-page story on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 1978, warning readers in the headline: “Major Snowstorm Fort Wayne-Bound.” I believe the storm that hit that night is one reason people around here still flock to the grocery stores on days when such predictions are made. The snowstorm that hit us 30 years ago this month stranded much of the population of Allen County with what they already had in their refrigerators and pantry shelves — many for several days.

More than 4 inches of snow was predicted by the National Weather Service for the next morning. But when we all got up that Thursday, few of us were able to go anywhere. Reports said 6 inches of snow had fallen before dawn on top of the several inches already on the ground, and accumulations would continue — up to 17 inches by the end of the day. But the real problem was the wind — gusts up to 55 mph had drifted snow as high as 20 feet in places. Some drifts reached telephone lines and the eaves of houses. The stories afterward recounted how people took stranded strangers into their homes, how owners of snowmobiles and four-wheel-drive trucks became ambulance drivers and how the National Guard had to rescue stranded motorists on the highways.

“The thing I remember most is how Fort Wayne worked together,” said Robert Armstrong in a story on the 15th anniversary of the blizzard in 1993. Armstrong was mayor at the time. The story said he stayed in the mayor's office for four days to help coordinate the $1 million cleanup.

Streets were not only impassable on Jan. 26, 1978, they were invisible. Sidewalks and driveways were buried. Front doors were barricaded by mounds of snow. And the winds whipped a blinding, biting barrage of white cold on anyone venturing out on foot.

Trying to walk was nearly futile through snow up to your waist. Temperatures were in the low teens with wind chills well below zero. Even snowplows weren't going to be dispatched in many cases until the winds subsided.

So I didn't make it to work at the newspaper that day. I couldn't get out of my garage, much less my driveway. I was a sportswriter for The News-Sentinel, and only a skeleton crew made it in.

The News-Sentinel prided itself on the fact that it printed a paper that day, even though there was no way to deliver it. It was only one section, 12 pages — a front page, editorial page, comics page and a page combining sports with features. The rest was classified ads. Of course, there were only two reporters, one photographer and a couple of editors and desk workers who put it together. Not to mention a few hardy production workers who made it in, some by snowmobile, to print it.

The headline on the lead story across the top of the page said, “Snow Buries Fort Wayne,” and the type was graphically enhanced to include snow flurries with snowdrifts covering the bottom portions of the letters. The News-Sentinel nameplate at the top of the page was snow-covered as well.

Our editor at the time, Ernie Williams, was proud that, despite the weather, The News-Sentinel was maintaining its unbroken tradition of publishing, which went back to the founding of The Sentinel in 1833.

Our managing editor was my longtime friend and colleague, Joe Sheibley. In a Kevin Leininger column written years later, Sheibley recalled how he awoke early that morning in 1978 “to a blinding storm that had, by the end of the day, deposited 17 inches of snow on the ground, then blown it into house-high drifts.” Nevertheless, he put on his hat, coat, gloves and boots and, at 5 a.m., started walking to work — several miles away. Luckily for him, a four-wheel-drive truck came by after he had trudged just a few blocks.”

The roads were so bad that the newspapers our weather-trimmed staff worked so hard to produce those first couple of days didn't get delivered for several days.

“But we never missed a deadline,” Sheibley said.

I made it to the newspaper office on West Main Street the second day — Friday. And although I was a sportswriter, I was put to work on a follow-up story on the blizzard.

As with the Flood of 1982, the 1978 blizzard was one of those huge occasions when our entire staff mobilized to produce the best, most complete coverage possible — lots of stories and even more pictures to document the unforgettable event. Sleep and sometimes even going home were secondary options for some staff members.

My contribution for the Saturday paper was a story about how businesses were coping and included a vignette about a handful of patrons trapped at the 412 Club on East Washington Boulevard who had, by Friday, run out of food and were “imbibing.” It also mentioned how most businesses were closed and groceries couldn't get bread delivered, so one in Decatur was even baking its own to compensate.

Almost everybody who was in Fort Wayne — or for that matter, anywhere in the Midwest — can tell you a story about that Thursday, Jan. 26, 1978, and the next few days after. Beginning today and for the next week, we are publishing many of them submitted by readers.

Kerry Hubartt is editor of The News-Sentinel. He has worked at The News-Sentinel since 1971 and was a sportswriter at the time of the Blizzard of 1978.