CHICAGO — A colossal blizzard roaring across a third of the country paralyzed the nation’s heartland with ice and snow, leaving motorists stranded for hours and shuttering airports and schools as it barreled toward the Northeast.
The monstrous storm billed as the worst in decades delivered knock-out after knock-out as it made its way from Texas to Maine, bringing a huge swath of the country to a halt.
In New York, Mike Schumaker was already into his 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.
“I figure I’ll be going to about 1 or 2 in the morning. That’s my guess,” said the 42-year-old private contractor from Latham.
“It’s not so much about plowing as it is about to where to put it,” he said. “We still have snow from Christmas that hasn’t melted.”
In Chicago, the city shut down Lake Shore Drive for the first time in years, an untold number of motorists stranded overnight after multiple car accidents on the iconic roadway.
And it wasn’t over yet. Chicago received up to 17 inches of snow with more still possible, Missouri as much as 1 1/2 feet, more than a foot dropped on northern Indiana and Oklahoma has much as a foot. In the Northeast, spots in northern New York had already gotten more than a foot of snow. New York City was expected to get up to three-quarters of an inch of ice by midday before the mix of sleet and freezing rain warms up to rain.
Forecasters warn that ice accumulations could knock down some tree limbs and power lines. Ice also could affect transit service, even as plow drivers struggled to keep up with the snow on many roads.
“Nights like tonight stink because you clear a street and you turn around and you can’t even tell you did anything,” Kevin Briney said as he drove his plow through downtown South Bend, Ind., on Tuesday night.
More than 200,000 homes and businesses in Ohio began Wednesday without power, while in excess of 50,000 customers had no electricity in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which were hit with mostly freezing rain and ice.
Federal Emergency Management Agency director Craig Fugate said the agency is on standby with generators, food, water and other supplies to help state and local authorities.
“The real heroes are these local responders going out in the storms and still rescuing people,” he told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
In Chicago, public schools were closed for the first time in 12 years. Crews were still trying to rescue some motorists Wednesday morning who had been stuck on Lake Shore Drive for 12 hours. It wasn’t clear exactly how many motorists had been trapped, and some had abandoned their vehicles.
It was like, insane,” one of the motorists, Frank Ercole, told WLS-TV. “No one knows anything. Everything’s frozen.”
In Oklahoma, rescue crews and the National Guard searched overnight for any motorists who might be 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 shut down hours ahead of the snow. Scores of schools, colleges and government offices canceled activities or decided not to open at all. Thousands of flights were canceled across the nation.
The NFL did manage to stick to its Super Bowl schedule, holding media activities at Cowboys Stadium in suburban Arlington as planned, though the city’s ice-covered streets were deserted.
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.”
The wind gusts were strong enough to start the building’s heavy revolving door spinning by itself.
The management at Butler’s building called in extra employees for the storm. They bought the staff dinner and offered to put them up for the night at a nearby hotel, but Butler planned to drive home no matter what.
“If you’re a true Chicagoan, you don’t back down from this kind of storm.” But, he added, “if you don’t respect it, you’ll pay a price.”
Many businesses in the city planned to remain shuttered Wednesday, as did cultural attractions and universities.
Some parents were glad the city took the rare step of closing schools in a city that is normally proud of shouldering the worst Mother Nature has to offer.
“They should cancel,” said Sunjay Shah, 54, a sundries shop manager stranded at a downtown hotel overnight, saying his 17-year-old son was thrilled with the snow day. “How are students going to walk or take trains (to class)?”
Not only was driving in and around the city dicey, but flying in and out of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport — a major U.S. hub — won’t be possible at all 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 at other U.S. airports, said transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman.
“Effectively shutting down America’s most important aviation hub hits the system immeasurably hard,” he said about O’Hare. He said other U.S. airports not even in the path of the storm should start to see delays themselves right away as a result.
The city’s smaller airport, Midway International, hoped to resume flights Wednesday afternoon. Hundreds of flights were canceled at airports in Detroit, Milwaukee and Madison, Wis.
Associated Press writers Karen Hawkins, Don Babwin, Sophia Tareen, Tammy Webber and Barbara Rodriguez in Chicago; Tom Coyne in South Bend, Ind.; Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee; Chris Carola in Albany, N.Y.; Jim Salter in St. Louis; and Justin Juozapavicius in Tulsa, Okla., contributed to this report.