Midwest buckles under storm, calls it a snow day

Hundreds of cars are seen stranded on Lake Shore Drive Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011 in Chicago. A winter blizzard of historic proportions wobbled an otherwise snow-tough Chicago, stranding hundreds of drivers for up to 12 hours overnight on the city's showcase lakeshore thoroughfare and giving many city schoolchildren their first ever snow day. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

February 2, 2011 11:09:41 AM PST
A colossal blizzard roaring across a third of the country paralyzed the nation's heartland with ice and snow, shuttering airports and schools and leaving normally bustling downtowns deserted. The monstrous storm billed as the worst in decades delivered knock-out after knock-out as it made its way from Texas to Maine, bringing Chicago and the rest of the Midwest to a halt and prompting a region-wide snow day.

"I'm usually skeptical about predictions of a big storm," 50-year-old law firm librarian Janet Smith said Tuesday afternoon while waiting at a downtown Chicago train station. "But I'm kind of excited. I wasn't around for the storm of `67, or the storm of `79, or the storm of `99. I've missed all the greats. I'm excited about experiencing it."

For the first time in history, the state of Missouri shut down Interstate 70 between St. Louis and Kansas City due to a winter storm. The newspaper in Tulsa, Okla., canceled its print edition for the first time in more than a century. And in Chicago, public schools called a snow day for the first time in 12 years.

And it wasn't over yet. Chicago expected 2 feet of snow, Michigan more than 1 foot, Indianapolis an inch of ice, and the Northeast still more ice and snow in what's shaping up to be a record winter for the region.

Forecasters warn that ice accumulations could knock down some tree limbs and power lines. Ice also could affect transit service, even as plow drivers struggled to keep up with the snow on many roads.

"Nights like tonight stink because you clear a street and you turn around and you can't even tell you did anything," Kevin Briney said as he drove his plow through downtown South Bend, Ind., on Tuesday night.

The storm led Chicago officials to close the city's busy and iconic Lake Shore Drive after a series of accidents, stranding some motorists and buses for several hours overnight. The city's office of emergency management said crews were still struggling to get everyone off the roadway early Wednesday morning and some people had abandoned their cars. Forecasters also warned that high winds could push 25-foot waves from nearby Lake Michigan onto Lake Shore Drive.

In New York, officials preemptively banned tandem-trucks of all sizes from a major interstate. New York City residents were urged to use mass transit and to clear snow and ice from fire hydrants.

In Oklahoma, rescue crews and the National Guard searched overnight for any motorists who might be stranded along its major highways after whiteouts shut down Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

For those who insisted on braving the elements, the risks were many. "If you don't have enough fuel in your vehicle, you can run out, the heat goes out -- and people can even freeze to death," said Greg Cohen, executive director of the Roadway Safety Foundation.

Cities across middle America shut down hours ahead of the snow. Scores of schools, colleges and government offices canceled activities or decided not to open at all. Thousands of flights were canceled across the nation.

The NFL did manage to stick to its Super Bowl schedule, holding media activities at Cowboys Stadium in suburban Arlington as planned, though the city's ice-covered streets were deserted.

Even Chicago -- with its legions of snowplows and its usual confidence in the face of winter storms that would surely crush other cities -- bent under the storm's weight.

"This is nothing to play with here," said Edward Butler, a lakefront doorman peering through his building's glass doors at snow blowing horizontally and in small cyclones down the street. "This is gale force wind."

The wind gusts were strong enough to start the building's heavy revolving door spinning by itself.

The management at Butler's building called in extra employees for the storm. They bought the staff dinner and offered to put them up for the night at a nearby hotel, but Butler planned to drive home no matter what.

"If you're a true Chicagoan, you don't back down from this kind of storm." But, he added, "if you don't respect it, you'll pay a price."

Many businesses in the city planned to remain shuttered Wednesday, as did cultural attractions and universities.

Some parents were glad the city took the rare step of closing schools in a city that is normally proud of shouldering the worst Mother Nature has to offer.

"They should cancel," said Sunjay Shah, 54, a sundries shop manager stranded at a downtown hotel overnight, saying his 17-year-old son was thrilled with the snow day. "How are students going to walk or take trains (to class)?"

Not only was driving in and around the city dicey, but flying in and out of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport -- a major U.S. hub -- won't be possible at all until Thursday.

The decision by O'Hare-based airlines to cancel all their flights for a day and a half was certain to have ripple effects at other U.S. airports, said transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman.

"Effectively shutting down America's most important aviation hub hits the system immeasurably hard," he said about O'Hare. He said other U.S. airports not even in the path of the storm should start to see delays themselves right away as a result.

The city's smaller airport, Midway International, hoped to resume flights Wednesday afternoon.


Associated Press writers Karen Hawkins, Don Babwin, Sophia Tareen, Tammy Webber and Barbara Rodriguez in Chicago, Tom Coyne in South Bend, Ind., Jim Salter in St. Louis and Justin Juozapavicius in Tulsa, Okla., contributed to this report.