By MICHAEL TARM, Associated Press
CHICAGO (AP) - A massive storm billed as the worst in decades barreled toward the Northeast on Wednesday, paralyzing big cities and small towns alike with deep snow and thick ice, stranding hundreds of motorists and shuttering airports and schools across the Midwest.
The 20.2 inches of snow that fell by midday in Chicago made the storm the city's third-largest on record, with still more coming down.
A foot or more was dumped on parts of Missouri, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma and upstate New York.
New York City was expected to get up to three-quarters of an inch of ice before the mix of sleet and freezing rain warms up to rain.
The storm was, if not unprecedented, extraordinarily rare, National Weather Service meteorologist Thomas Spriggs said.
"A storm that produces a swath of 20-inch snow is really something we'd see once every 50 years - maybe," Spriggs said.
Forecasters warned ice accumulations would knock down some tree limbs and power lines across the storm's more than 2,000-mile path. Multiple roof and structure collapses, but no injuries, were reported in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts early Wednesday.
Ice also stalled local and regional transit, with Amtrak suspending service from New York City to Philadelphia because of power problems.
In upstate New York, Mike Schumaker was into the fourth hour of what he predicted would be a 24-hour plowing marathon as he cleared snow from a suburban Albany gas station around 5 a.m. Wednesday.
"It's not so much about plowing as it is about where to put it," said the 42-year-old private contractor from Latham. "We still have snow from Christmas that hasn't melted."
Chicago closed its public schools for the first time in 12 years and shut down Lake Shore Drive, where hundreds of motorists were stranded for 12 hours after multiple car accidents on the iconic roadway.
On Wednesday morning, Lake Shore Drive looked like rush hour had been stopped in time. Three lanes of cars cluttered the road with snow reaching as high as the windshields. Some cars were almost completely buried.
Bulldozers worked to clear the snow from around the cars, then tow trucks plucked them out of snow drifts one by one. The operation likely would take hours: At least 1,500 cars awaited rescue.
“Effectively shutting down America's most important aviation hub -- Chicago -- hits the system immeasurably hard.”Joseph Schwieterman, transportation expert
Lindsey Wilson, 26, said that after sitting for hours on a stranded city bus, she joined other passengers who tried to walk off the road. She made it about 100 feet before she couldn't see anything around her, including the bus she'd just left.
Fearing she would be swallowed by mounting snowdrifts, Wilson turned back and spent the night on the bus.
"I thought if I fall over, what would happen if I got buried under a pile of snow?" she said.
Raymond Orozco, chief of staff to Mayor Richard Daley, said motorist rescue efforts had been "severely hampered" by snow drifts, high winds and white-out conditions.
Not only was driving dicey, but flying in and out of Chicago's O'Hare Airport - a major U.S. hub - won't be possible 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.
"Effectively shutting down America's most important aviation hub hits the system immeasurably hard," said transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman.
The city's smaller airport, Midway, also abandoned hopes of resuming flights until Thursday. Boston's Logan Airport closed briefly Wednesday as well.
More than 5,500 flights in or out of the U.S. were canceled as of 11 a.m. Wednesday, according to flight tracking service FlightAware. Most were scratched well in advance of the fast moving storm.
"It's winter. It should have snow and ice. It's the way it is," said Vincent Zuza of Chatham, N.J., who was waiting for a flight to Salt Lake City for a ski trip after his first flight was canceled Wednesday. "You can't get too upset about it, and you can't control it. You just have to make the best of it."
More than 200,000 homes and businesses in Ohio began Wednesday without power, while in excess of 100,000 customers had no electricity in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which were hit with mostly freezing rain and ice.
Rolling blackouts were implemented across Texas, including in Super Bowl host city Dallas, due to high demand during a rare ice storm.
The outages would not affect Cowboys Stadium in suburban Arlington, said Jeamy Molina, a spokeswoman for utility provider Oncor. But other Super Bowl facilities, such as team hotels, were not exempt, she said.
Outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a crew preparing to clear ice from sidewalks sat in their van warming up before sunrise Wednesday.
One complained that getting to work - even for him - had been treacherous.
"Walking was terrible," said Rob Jones, 20, of Cenova Snow & Ice Solutions "I slid all the way down my street."
At least two weather-related deaths were reported in New York, including a traffic fatality and a homeless man on Long Island who, police said, had burned to death as he tried to light cans of cooking fuel while sheltering behind a food market.
A 20-year-old woman died in Oklahoma City while being pulled behind a truck on a sled that hit a metal guard rail. A Michigan man died when his pickup truck rolled over several times on an icy highway and a Wisconsin man died while shoveling snow.
In Oklahoma, rescue crews and the National Guard searched overnight for any motorists who were 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 had shut down hours ahead of the snow. Scores of schools, colleges and government offices canceled activities or decided not to open at all.
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."
Many businesses planned to remain closed Wednesday, as did cultural attractions and universities.
At least three Missouri newspapers made their online editions available for free to all customers, saying weather conditions made it too dangerous to deliver print editions. The Joplin Globe, The Carthage Press and The Sedalia Democrat posted notes on their websites explaining the change.
The Tulsa World in Oklahoma did not deliver a print edition for the first time in more than a century.
Analysts said despite the immediate headaches, the storms were likely to slow the U.S. economy only modestly.
"Annoying as it all is, the effect on (growth) is going to be on the smaller side," said David Resler, chief U.S. economist at Nomura Global Economics.
Providing a ray of hope to those battered by the storm, the world's most famous weather forecaster - with four legs - predicted an early spring.
Punxsutawney Phil's handlers told Groundhog Day revelers at Gobbler's Knob, a tiny hill in Punxsutawney, Pa., that the groundhog had not seen his shadow, meaning winter will end within six weeks, according to tradition.
Associated Press writers Karen Hawkins, Don Babwin, Sophia Tareen, Tammy Webber, and Barbara Rodriguez and photographer Kii Sato in Chicago; Tom Coyne in South Bend, Ind.; Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee; Ken Miller in Oklahoma City; Patrick Walters in Philadelphia; Chris Carola in Albany, N.Y.; Jim Salter in St. Louis; Justin Juozapavicius in Tulsa, Okla.; Ula Ilnytzky in New York City and Adam Pemble in Newark, N.J. contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)