Backtrack: Deep Coverage

Veteran weathermen recall the storm that paralyzed the city 40 years ago.
The Blizzard of ’78, a once-in-a-lifetime storm that brought several states to a frozen standstill, was so powerful it surprised even Indy’s weather forecasters. Bob Gregory, then-chief weathercaster at WTHR, remembers getting tipped off about the tempest by the National Weather Service in the wee hours of a Wednesday morning. He dutifully told his viewers to prepare for the worst. But he, like pretty much everyone else, didn’t realize how bad the worst could get until the winds started howling that night.

“People knew something was coming, but I think the majority really had no idea just how severe this thing was going to be,” Gregory recalls.

In this case, it meant a storm that dumped 20 inches of snow on the metro area, which blew into mountainous drifts by frigid winds gusting up to 50 mph. A day after the storm started, the Indiana State Police declared every road in the state closed. Trucks stranded on I-65 had to be pulled out by National Guard tanks. Ultimately, 70 people would die as a result of the blizzard, according to the National Weather Service.

With movement all but impossible, most people hunkered down in place—including WRTV’s chief meteorologist at the time, Bob McLain, who arrived at work as usual at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, but wouldn’t see his home again until Saturday morning. The station staff spent its off-duty hours at the nearby North Meridian Inn, which they reached by way of WRTV’s one four-wheel-drive vehicle.

This wintry wrath had caught everyone by surprise. “I didn’t bring any changes of clothes,” McLain says. “I rinsed out my underwear in the sink in the room, and just wore the same suit, coat, and tie.”

Gregory (after passing a couple of nights at the station) eventually also made his way to the North Meridian Inn—but on foot, through the empty, post-apocalyptic hellscape of downtown Indianapolis. His room was dusted with half an inch of snow, and the vending machines were empty, but it was an oasis all the same.

“When we walked to the Inn, the streets were deserted,” Gregory says. “It was like being on the moon.”