CHICAGO – A late winter storm packing up to 10 inches of snow sent officials in weather-hardened Chicago into action Tuesday to prevent a repeat of scenes from two years ago, when hundreds of people in cars and buses were stranded on the city's marquee thoroughfare during a massive blizzard.
The storm was part of a system that started in Montana, hit the Dakotas and Minnesota on Monday and then barreled through Wisconsin and Illinois on its way to Washington, D.C., where it was expected late Tuesday night. As the storm pushed toward the Mid-Atlantic region, people there were gathering supplies and airlines were canceling flights.
Since the 2011 blizzard that dumped 20 inches on Chicago, the nation's third-largest city has had it pretty easy snow-wise, with a relatively mild winter last year and a slow start this year. The storm that was moving through the Midwest on Tuesday dumped 6 inches at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport by 4 p.m.
Preparations for Tuesday's storm, including warnings to commuters that it was coming, may have paid off. Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Claffey said in an email that traffic was lighter than normal on Chicago expressways Tuesday afternoon, an indication that many people took public transportation instead of cars. Claffey also said there were no reports of any major traffic accidents.
Still, some in Chicago were caught off guard by the last gasp from Old Man Winter. Many left their downtown jobs early, with some saying they had to go home to take care of children after school programs were canceled or baby sitters couldn't make it.
"I thought it was just media hype," said Stacia Kopplin, who was fleeing her financial services job shortly after noon to catch a train home to the suburbs.
Schools were closed in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, where officials urged caution on slick roads. In western Wisconsin, a semi-trailer slid off a snow-covered interstate near Menomonie and into the Red Cedar River, killing one person. The search for a second person, believed to be a passenger, was suspended overnight.
Airlines canceled more than 1,100 flights at Chicago airports, prompting delays and closures at others. Airlines along the storm's projected path were already cutting flights too, including about 450 on Wednesday, most of them at Dulles and Reagan National airports in the Washington area, according to FlightAware.com. Daniel Baker, CEO of the flight-tracking service, said he expected the numbers to rise.
In Chicago, officials worked to keep Lake Shore Drive safe. The February 2011 blizzard embarrassed the city when hundreds of cars and buses were entombed in snow on the roadway that runs along Lake Michigan. Many people were trapped overnight.
City government took steps to prevent a repeat. Officials opened a removable barrier in the roadway's median to allow emergency vehicles quicker access to trouble spots. Plows and salt-spreading trucks were in easier striking distance of Lake Shore Drive, and they started treating the roadway hours before snow began falling.
Elsewhere, some were taking the snow in stride.
"It's not that bad at all," said 47-year-old Alicia Aldrete, who was out walking her dog in Madison, Wis. "Just make sure you shovel immediately, put lots of salt on the ground and also store lots of food in case of emergency."
Dave Koch, manager at Paul's Tavern in Dubuque, Iowa, said business was surprisingly busy Tuesday afternoon as people came in to escape the snow. At least 5 inches of snow had fallen.
"In general, everyone's attitude is pretty tired," Koch said. "I think people are tired of the snow and the gloomy weather."
A.J. Krizman, an 87-year-old retiree from South Bend, Ind., said he hoped it was the last snow of the season.
"It's almost time to start planting a garden," Krizman said. "So I hope we're through with this."
In St. Paul, Minn., where 7 inches of snow had fallen, 55-year-old Mario Showers was shoveling sidewalks around a downtown church.
"With Minnesota, ain't no telling when the snow's gonna come, you know," said Showers. "The way I think about it is that, you've got four seasons, and every season brings about a change, you know. So, you've got to take the bitter with the sweet, that's all. So this is the bitter right now."
As the storm moved through the Midwest, people in the Mid-Atlantic region were getting ready.
"Well, I have an inclination to think that it's not going to be as bad as they say it is, but it probably will be. So, it's better to be prepared, just in case," said 33-year-old Ann Oulobo, who was stocking up on medicine and other necessities in Baltimore County, Md., after shopping for groceries earlier in the day.
At the Food Lion in Staunton, Va., shelves that were stocked ahead of the storm were being cleared by customers.
"Bread, milk, eggs and beer, all the necessities," manager Everett Castle said.
Washington, D.C., could get 3 to 7 inches of snow, while the mountains of western Maryland could see 16 inches by Wednesday night. Minor tidal flooding was possible along the Delaware coast, the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay and the lower Potomac River, the National Weather Service said.
As miserable as things could get for commuters, taxi driver Balwinder Singh of Herndon, Va., said he was looking forward to the storm.
"People tip better in the snow," he said.
As the heavy, wet snow fell in Chicago, residents were working their shovels and snow-blowers.
Pat Reidy said she skipped work and did 40 minutes of yoga as a warm-up for the heavy lifting she was doing in her neighborhood near Wrigley Field.
"I'm trying to avoid a heart attack," the 52-year-old finance worker said.
Mike Morawski, 53, was helping clear the sidewalk in front an older neighbor's home.
"We don't want her digging out," he said. "She's a tender, little woman, a piano teacher. She doesn't need to be shoveling."
Chicago's love-thy-neighbor ethos has its limits, though. With the winter blast, Morawski expected the return of an old city tradition in which residents clear a parking space and keep it reserved with a lawn chair.
"They'll all come out tonight, believe me, when people start digging out," he said.