Here came the storm, flying across the vast whiteness of the frozen lake, mustering its cold and furious power toward that distant shoreline, shrieking, churning, hurling, whistling, whooping and swirling, until it whooshed into Joe Tegreene’s bedroom window. The rattle woke him. It was 2 a.m. the morning of Thursday, Jan. 26, 1978. Tegreene lived in a building just off Clifton Boulevard, close to the Lake Erie shoreline. He climbed out of bed and looked out. The wind howled like something alive, haranguing the panes.
Since the day Tegreene took a post as the city of Cleveland’s finance director in November 1977, working for newly elected “boy mayor” Dennis Kucinich, the snow had piled up constantly. There were snowstorms in November, snowstorms in December, and still more snowstorms in January. The sheer volume had numbed Tegreene. So as he looked out the window, he expected this storm to be like all those others: annoying, but manageable. “We all knew a storm was coming,” he says. “But no one knew how fierce it would be.”
But then, at 3:30 a.m., Tegreene’s phone rang. The mayor’s secretary was on the line. “You know what’s going on outside?” she said.
Something fierce and mean was brewing. The storm looked to be developing into a once-in-a-lifetime event, a remember-it-for-50-years storm, the type of storm that Clevelanders would talk to their kids and grandkids about.
“It’s bad,” she said.
“OK,” said Tegreene. “But I don’t know what I can do.”
There was something, she said: get to City Hall. Kucinich was stuck in Washington D.C., set to meet President Jimmy Carter. Under the city charter, the law director would be first in line to succeed him if he were incapacitated, followed by the finance director. That rule would not technically be invoked, since Kucinich was of able body. But City Hall needed to be occupied by someone with the imprimatur of authority, and the law director lived in the eastern suburbs, smack in the middle of the snow belt. So 24-year-old Tegreene would be the effective acting mayor, Kucinich’s right hand in a city in crisis. A police car was already on its way to pick him up.
It arrived at 4 a.m. as Tegreene climbed into the car, the snow was already hurtling down. He sat for what felt like ages as it crawled toward City Hall. The trip took about five minutes on a normal day. But the patrol car, driven along rapidly whitening streets, got to City Hall in 45. Specks of white swished and whirled outside the windows, cutting off visibility.
Tegreene got to the hall around 5 a.m., and found that snowplows had been roaming the streets since the prior evening. But there was little they could do. The wind was picking up, blowing at cyclone speeds that would eventually exceed 80 miles per hour. It was whipping snow against the buildings, cracking windows and brushing salt off the roads.
Later that morning as Tegreene stood with other top City Hall aides in the wood-paneled Red Room off the mayor’s office, strategizing about what to do, a few snowflakes even blew in through the window cracks. They floated down, past the portraits of mayors gone, and melted into the crimson carpet.
Snow had penetrated Cleveland’s innermost sanctum. The worst storm in the city’s history had arrived.