CHICAGO – At the first sign of snow this winter, Robin Fine bolted out on a crucial errand she wishes she had taken care of last year — before she and hundreds of others were trapped in snow-buried cars for 12 hours on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive.
"I went out and bought boots," said the 53-year-old, with a laugh, "because I didn't have them back then."
The hardy city has always taken pride in surviving snowstorms. But a year after the Feb. 1 blizzard embarrassed it by doing the unthinkable — shutting down its iconic lakefront thoroughfare at rush hour, entombing hundreds of cars and buses and trapping passengers overnight — Chicago residents have humbly taken the lessons to heart. And the city government has taken extra steps to prevent a repeat performance.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration created new safeguards, including more managers on duty during storms, better inter-agency communication to make quicker decisions and breaks in the roadway's formerly impenetrable berm to make sure motorists can evacuate more easily. The city has set aside $20 million for snow cleanup alone.
Authorities have not taken chances this winter. Even before the first flakes fell during a Jan. 20 snowstorm that left behind a mere 8 inches, transit officials pre-emptively closed Lake Shore Drive to bus traffic for several hours.
"That's reflective of the collaboration that we now do to ensure that we make the right calls at the right times," said Gary Schenkel, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and former U.S. Department of Homeland Security official whom Emanuel put in charge of the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
The crushing February blizzard was the third worst in Chicago history. It dumped more than 20 inches of snow and blasted the city with 70-mph gusts. Airports and businesses closed, and children saw their first snow day in more than a decade.
The storm cost the city an estimated $37.3 million in snow-clearing operations, including $13.3 million at the Department of Streets and Sanitation, which takes the lead on storm response. That ate up most much of the $20 million the department had budgeted for the season.
This year's budget is also about $20 million, said department spokesman Matt Smith. But this winter has been much milder so far, and improvements in technology and in areas such as the management of snowplow deployments have meant bigger savings, he said.
Efficient snow removal is key in Chicago, where in 1979, Mayor Michael Bilandic lost his re-election bid because the streets weren't cleared fast enough.
Acting on recommendations from a post-blizzard report, the city cut two emergency turnarounds into the median barrier on a northern section of Lake Shore Drive that can be opened to reverse the flow of traffic. That might have helped last year when a series of accidents jammed the road like a cork at rush hour, trapping hundreds of people and 1,500 vehicles.
"Opening that up is good sense," said Joseph Schofer, a professor of civil environmental engineering at Northwestern University. "... You have to provide some emergency escapes either for people that are caught in some evil event like a snowstorm or a crash or to get emergency vehicles back and forth."
The Chicago Transit Authority will also deploy more managers out on Lake Shore Drive when snow falls to provide real-time information on conditions to supplement additional surveillance cameras installed last year along the route. Tow trucks are also positioned along the drive when storms are expected.
Other changes include better radio communication between bus drivers and the transit operations center. But one driver on the route, Deborah Hendrix, said she hadn't been briefed on the turnaround points or other changes meant to prevent another debacle on the lakefront.
The transit authority insists it has communicated the changes extensively in regular bulletins sent out to managers, supervisors, drivers and operators.
Hendrix said she is new to the route and has heard the stories of fellow drivers who were stuck last year. She is fearful of being caught in a similar mess.
"I'm always worried," Hendrix said as her No. 147 bus clattered along the drive on a January afternoon so cold that icicles hung from the vehicle's bumpers and tire wells.
The city's changes offer little comfort to some who were stranded. Some are still angry the road wasn't closed earlier — officials waited about six hours before doing so — and that emergency officials couldn't give them direction.
Caleb Bateman, a 26-year-old who was stuck on Lake Shore Drive for more than 11 hours, is unimpressed with the breaks in the median.
"That's like putting a Band-Aid on a big old gash," he said.
Fine spent the evening of Feb. 1 holed up with another stranded driver because she feared she would run out of gas if she kept her car running to use the heat. The two talked, dozed off and waited, obeying authorities' broadcast instructions not to abandon their cars. Firefighters arrived at Fine's car some 12 hours later. Others chose not to wait, instead stumbling through the darkness and blinding whiteout, directionless.
Even with her new boots, Fine, a clinical pharmacist consultant, makes nursing home visits closer to her apartment when snow is in the forecast.
"I did have a little post-traumatic stress," she said. "Every time it snowed, I'd get nervous. But I lived through it."