Unusually fierce storm wreaks havoc on much of country

Abandoned vehicles blocked Lake Shore Drive in Chicago yesterday. Officials could not say when the road would reopen. Abandoned vehicles blocked Lake Shore Drive in Chicago yesterday. Officials could not say when the road would reopen. (Kiichiro Sato/Associated Press)
By Don Babwin and Michael Tarm
Associated Press / February 3, 2011

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CHICAGO — A fearsome storm spread a shroud of white over nearly half the nation yesterday, snarling transportation from Oklahoma to New England, burying parts of the Midwest under 2 feet of snow, and laying down dangerously heavy layers of ice in the Northeast.

Tens of millions of people stayed home. Those who ventured out faced howling winds that turned snowflakes into face-stinging needles. Chicago’s 20.2 inches of snow was the city’s third-largest amount on record. In New York’s Central Park, pathways resembled skating rinks.

The storm that resulted from two clashing air masses was, if not unprecedented, extraordinarily rare for its size and ferocious strength.

“A storm that produces a swath of 20-inch snow is really something we’d see once every 50 years — maybe,’’ National Weather Service meteorologist Thomas Spriggs said.

Lonely commuters struggled against drifts 3 and 4 feet deep in eerily silent streets that hadn’t seen a plow’s blade since the snow started a day earlier.

“This is probably the most snow I’ve seen in the last 34 years,’’ joked 34-year-old Chicagoan Michael George.

Although skies were beginning to clear over much of the nation’s midsection, the storm promised to leave a blast of bitter cold in its wake. Overnight temperatures in the upper Midwest were expected to fall to minus 5 to minus 20, with windchill readings as low as minus 30.

The system was blamed for at least 10 deaths.

Airport operations slowed to a crawl nationwide, and flight cancellations reached 13,000 for the week, making this system the most disruptive so far this winter. A post-Christmas blizzard led to about 10,000 cancellations.

More than a half-dozen states began digging out from up to a foot of snow that made roads treacherous and left hundreds of thousands of homes without power.

Chicago public schools canceled classes for the second straight day. And the city’s iconic Lake Shore Drive remained shut, nearly a day after drivers abandoned hundreds of snowbound vehicles. Bulldozers worked to clear the snow from around the cars, which were then plucked by tow trucks out of the drifts.

Elsewhere, utility crews raced to restore power to tens of thousands of homes and businesses in Ohio, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, where freezing rain and ice brought down electrical lines.

Rolling blackouts were implemented across Texas, including in Super Bowl host city Dallas, due to high demand during a rare ice storm.