ELKHART — Families trapped in their homes for days, perhaps up to a week in some rural areas.
Cars completely buried along neighborhood streets and others abandoned on county roads.
Communities frozen in time.
This weekend's bitter winter storm? Not exactly.
The blizzard-like conditions across northern Indiana have been harsh, but the recent bout of polar conditions have nothing on the paralyzing “Blizzard of '78.”
The headline, which stretched above the The Elkhart Truth's masthead on Friday, Jan. 27, said it all: “Bulldozing Out — But Slowly.”
Not just digging out, bulldozing out. It was that bad.
This week, Elkhart County experienced a blizzard, but 1978 was THE blizzard.
For reporters covering the storm, it was an immense challenge.
Today's digitally driven world made this week's storm coverage simple in comparison to what 1978 Truth staffers endured.
“Cars couldn't get around anywhere,” said Steve Bibler, then the business reporter, of the storm which began on Wednesday, Jan. 25. “By late afternoon, it was close to two feet of snow and they said they weren't going to plow until the winds died down.
“But the snow was so thick you couldn't get anywhere.”
Larry Tebo, a veteran photographer in '78, who still works part-time for The Truth, said he was told to “go out and shoot.”
“I just went around town as best as I could, uptown, down around Pierre Moran Mall area. They just wanted pictures,” Tebo said. “I had a helluva time getting home.”
Arguably Tebo's most telling shot was from the roof of the six-story Communicana Building, where The Truth is housed, looking west toward First Congregational Church, which is a block away.
The church could barely be seen in the giant, five-column banner photo.
Reporters who managed to get back downtown on Thursday, Jan. 26, couldn't return home. Six staffers ended up staying the night at the Greencroft Center building on Main Street.
“I was excited that I made it in,'' said Rick Meyer, the assistant sports editor. “Back in the day, if you got two feet on the ground, you went to work. There was no question about getting into work that day ... any day ... you just do it. We were just doing our job, our routine.
“The best part of that was The Sideboard. That was the highlight,'' Meyer said of the smorgasbord-style restaurant within the Greencroft Center. “It was a great eating place.”
Meyer, like today's staff still does regularly, spent time trying to make contacts with high schools to get new dates for postponed contests.
Reporters, doing all interviews on phones from their office, carved out stories over three days.
“Fortunately, our telephones worked,” Bibler said.
The sizeable story list included:
Ÿ “Storm Is Costing Business Bundle” — a story which detailed the 70,000 Elkhart County workers out of work, how the average wage per work was $220 per week, and that Coachmen Industries' 2,500 employees were losing $200,000 daily in salary and wages.
Ÿ “County Seeks Disaster Tag” — which told of how the Elkhart County Commissioners seeking disaster funds to help plow more than 1,400 miles of county roads from the 20.2 inches of wind-blown snow.
Ÿ “Day Surprisingly Emergency Free” — which documented an Elkhart fire truck being stuck in the snow, and an ambulance crew which abandoned their vehicle to walk to a woman's home. The crew then carried the woman through the snow back to an ambulance. There also was a story which noted how the Emergency Rescue Squad delivered food, medicine and transported doctors and nurses to Elkhart General Hospital.
Yet with all of the communities stories written and aftermath photos taken, residents waited for days to read about the blizzard.
“We monitored the police scanner, listened for anything about people being trapped,” Bibler said.
This week, with a cache of social media platforms and mobile technology in hand, The Truth punched out hourly, updated stories on www.elkharttruth.com and readers had information in seconds. The site logged more than 290,000 page views — a single-day Truth record — on Monday.
In 1978, three days worth of newspapers filled with storm news and information sat on loading docks for up to four days.
“It was an adventure ... we had 100,000 papers stacked in there,” said Rick Seymore, who was The Truth's mailroom supervisor. “A lot of those papers didn't get delivered until Monday. Once people started digging out on Sunday, we started delivering.”
“We figured out early on in the day (Thursday) that what we were reporting was instantly out of date,” said Bibler, who noted that the “digging out” stories quickly turned into a “bittersweet” situation.
“We wrote a lot of little vignettes, dealt with a lot of human interest types of things,” Bibler said. “We had to write about people who had died who couldn't be taken to funeral homes or couldn't be transported properly.”
“We didn't know how bad it was going to be,” Meyer said. “I wasn't even thinking about that. I know we just had to get the paper out.”