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Blizzard blasts Chicago, shuts down power, schools and roads

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By City Room and The Associated Press, WBEZ Chicago


For a city that's used to its fair share of snow storms, the Blizzard of 2011 has done something few blizzards have done before in Chicago: it's shut down much of this muscular, hearty and vibrant American metropolis.  Throughout the Chicago region, schools are closed, roads are impassable, employees are working from home, and transportation networks are snarled.

Overnight, the massive storm system dumped more than 17 inches at O'Hare Airport, with four to eight more inches possible by late this afternoon.

As a result, emergency officials throughout the region were urging people not to travel at all on Wednesday, unless absolutely necessary.  As of early Wednesday morning, six Metra lines were not operating, and remaining Metra lines were running a Sunday schedule. The CTA's Yellow Line Skokie Swift line was also shut down, as was the Brown Line from Kimball to Western.  In Northwest Indiana, the South Shore Line was running limited service to limited stops.

"The next 24 hours will be extremely challenging for everyone," CTA President Richard Rodriguez on Tuesday. "Customers should anticipate crowded trains and buses."

Gridlock on Lake Shore Drive

But the biggest transportation impact in Chicago could be seen along Lake Shore Drive.

City officials said early Wednesday that multiple lanes of cars and buses became stuck on the northbound lanes of the city's iconic lakefront roadway because of abandoned vehicles, multiple accidents and generally poor traffic conditions.

Ramps were closed in both directions just before 8 p.m. on Tuesday evening and motorists were directed off of Lake Shore Drive so crews could clear away snow, according to Roderick Drew, spokesperson for the City of Chicago's Office of Emergency Management.

However, the closures and the conditions left hundreds of other motorists stranded on Lake Shore Drive, unable to move or reach their destinations for hours.  The logjam continued into early Wednesday morning, long after rush hour, with some motorists reporting being stuck for more than 6 hours in their cars awaiting assistance or direction from emergency vehicles.

Talk radio stations blistered with calls from confused and angry motorists, most of whom were left idling along the Drive as the blizzard intensified.

The gridlock prompted Raymond Orozco, the Chief of Staff to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, to issue an apology on Wednesday.  "While we wanted to help people quickly, we needed to help people safely," he said.

The drive remained closed as of Wednesday, though the City says all motorists have now been evacuated and most vehicles have been removed.  Those looking to reclaim vehicles left on Lake Shore Drive were urged to call 311.

Forecast:  Storm expected to continue until late Weds

After a brief respite, snow has returned in force Wednesday morning.  The National Weather Service has issued a blizzard warning until 3 p.m. Wednesday.

"The road conditions are going to be very, very, very, very bad," said Bill Wilson, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service. "Snow will be heavy, so be careful shoveling it. It'll be kind of a wet snow."

40 people in the Chicago-area died of heart attacks sparked by shoveling snow during the major blizzard of 1999, according to the National Weather Service.

Wilson said visibility will be near zero, thanks, in part, to blowing snow.

Public health officials are encouraging people to check on family and friends and to stock up on food and water. The National Weather Service says Chicago could be in for its third worst blizzard since record-keeping began in 1886.

Many schools closed

Meanwhile, the blizzard bearing down on Chicago prompted Chicago Public Schools interim CEO Terry Mazany to announce the closing all of the city's public schools on Wednesday.  That's the first time in more than a decade that the district has closed schools due to winter weather.  The last time classes were cancelled was during a similar storm on January 4th and 5th of 1999.

Hundreds of school districts across the region, as well as colleges and universities, cancelled classes for Tuesday night and Wednesday.  Many of Chicago's normally vibrant theater and performing arts stages were dark as well.

Air travel halted

The blizzard also has prompted airlines to stop flying in and out of Midway International Airport, while more than 1,300 flights have been canceled at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, according to Karen Pride of the City of Chicago's Department of Aviation.  While O'Hare officially remains open, the department says that most of the airlines have said that they will either limit or halt flights on Wednesday. Southwest Airlines has canceled all flights in and out of Chicago's Midway Airport from Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday afternoon.

Municipal voting, Illinois legislature postponed

Meanwhile, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners has announced it will close down early voting sites in each ward on Wednesday. The only early voting site that will remain open is located at the Election Board offices at 69 W. Washington St. downtown. The ward election sites are expected to re-open on Thursday.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn issued the preemptive emergency declaration Monday well in advance of the monster storm, and later activated 500 members of the Illinois National Guard. In another preemptive move, the Illinois General  Assembly cancelled this week's sessions because of the expected problems in traveling. The legislature will not reconvene until Feb. 8.

Another early victim of the incoming storm was the Illinois Pork Producers Association 2011 Illinois Pork Expo in Peoria, that event has been rescheduled to Feb. 15 and 16.

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