CHICAGO – Hundreds of miles from its turbulent center, superstorm Sandy's outer bands were violent enough to rip up near-record high waves Tuesday on Lake Michigan, sending a community of avid surfers in Chicago into the cold, churning waters despite warnings from city officials.
Wave heights out in the middle of the lake reached 20 feet, short of the 23-foot record set last year by a strong storm pushing down from Canada. The difference this time is the winds are from the edges of what had been a tropical storm, one vast enough to reach hundreds of miles inland.
The enormous storm pummeled the East Coast, leaving millions without power, toppling trees and killing dozens. More than 600 miles away, the storm's winds could still be felt, blasting across Lake Michigan at 54 mph, according to the National Weather Service.
"Oh, most people wouldn't even come to the beach today, right?" said Jim Hoop, 50, who was among four surfers at a Chicago beach. "Good day to stay home. ... These are the days we're looking forward to."
The high waves brought cargo shipping to a standstill on the Great Lakes. Freighters as long as 1,000 feet haul loads of iron ore, coal and other bulk commodities on the lakes. Most if not all have took refuge in harbors or bays to escape the storm's wrath.
Several hundred residents of the lakeshore village of Pleasant Prairie in southeastern Wisconsin were urged to evacuate because of the effects of the storm, but officials said Tuesday there had been no reports of widespread flooding.
Sand whipped up by high winds spawned by the remnants of the hurricane prompted at least one northern Indiana school along Lake Michigan to cancel classes.
Ocean-like waves of around 10 feet crashed into the shoreline around Chicago, where the water can be as flat as glass on calm days and almost a tropical hue under a bright summer sky. On Tuesday, the water was dark, the color of slate.
At the 57th Street Beach, Hoop had just waxed up his board and was about to take a shortcut into the surf by scrambling from a promontory that juts out into the water. Hoop has surfed the spot since he was a young lifeguard in the early 1980s. But waves this high are a rare, maybe once-a-year occurrence, and he knew he had to take the day off from his real-estate job and hit the water. He wasn't even deterred by the ache in his shoulder from recent surgery — or his wife's worries.
"She thinks I'm crazy, but I met her at a lifeguard party, so she knew what she was getting into," he said with a laugh.
Describing the feeling of catching such high waves on his home beach, he said, "those few moments ... seem like forever. You're going down that wave," he said.
And then he paddled off, disappearing between the swells before catching a smooth ride to shore and diving into the foam with his arms outstretched.
Officials warned residents to stay away from the lakefront, and portions of the bicycle path along the shore were closed. Police officers had to chase a few runners off the path.
Meteorologist Andrew Krein with the National Weather Service said such high winds over the lake typically come with strong winter storms.
"The more unprecedented thing about this is that it's the outskirts of a former tropical system," he said. "... That's very unusual. The fact that the system is covering such a large area. I can't recall another system like this."
Across the lake in Michigan, winds gusting to 64 mph sent two-story-tall waves crashing onto the shoreline. The thrill of the big surf attracted Cameron Mammina to the waterfront at St. Joseph, where he took his board out among the churning waves Tuesday.
"It's pretty intimidating at times," said Mammina, manager of a surf shop. "Any time you get hit by a big wall of water, you have to catch your breath."
Associated Press writers David Goodman in Detroit, Jeff Baenen in Minneapolis and John Flesher in Traverse City, Mich., contributed to this report.