Chicago's first snow snarls airports, sparks outages

After a record 290-day snowless stretch, flakes hit the Chicago region late Thursday as the temperature dipped and winds whipped, creating a flurry of power outages and airline cancellations.

At least 500 flights were canceled at O'Hare and Midway as of 8:30 p.m. Meanwhile, meteorologists and transportation and city officials warned motorists to drive slowly and stay off the roads, if possible, as snow swooped into the city and the suburbs.

"We're advising folks ... to drive with extreme caution" on Friday morning, said Mike Claffey, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation, which had crews on the roads since Thursday afternoon. "We think there could be icy patches in the morning, despite our best efforts tonight."

ComEd officials scrambled to fix snapped lines and restore power to at least 28,000 customers, most of whom live in the western part of the state. Several vehicle crashes were also reported toward the end of the afternoon rush hour on various roads.

Meteorologists said as much as four inches of snow could be dumped Thursday, with the northwest and western suburbs likely to be hit the hardest. High winds were also making their way into Chicago on Thursday evening and could grow stronger, according to the National Weather Service.

Thursday's snowfall would pave the way for temperatures in the mid-20s on Friday, with strong gusts and wind chills in the single digits, meteorologists said.

"It's going to feel more like winter as everybody wakes up" on Friday, said David Beachler, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Light snow showers are expected throughout Friday, but they should taper off for the rest of the weekend, meteorologists said.

Thursday's flurries rank as the latest first snowfall of the season since records began in 1884.

Before the snow set in, Thursday saw mostly rain that switched from a light drizzle to a heavy pour. Under a light gray sky, shoppers in downtown Chicago juggled large bags and umbrellas while commuters huddled under bus shelters to stay dry.

Metra planned to have staff on hand, including mechanical workers, to make sure emergency repairs could be done promptly. The CTA said it was monitoring traffic and weather conditions to determine if it needed to reroute buses.

The storm had ComEd adding more crews and equipment as wind, snow and ice damaged the company's power system. It also asked other utilities to respond quickly to potential power outages.

Despite the weather warnings, not everyone understood what the fuss was about.

"There is nothing, hardly anything," said Nicole Diliberto, who drove from Chicago to her home in Algonquin. "I'm not sure why everyone is so freaked out."

At O'Hare International Airport, where travelers faced delays of up to 90 minutes, those with canceled flights stood in long lines to reschedule their travel plans.

Passengers with delayed flights slept, some taking shoes off or lying across rows of seats at the United Airlines terminal. Many stood crowded around the flight departure screen, anxiously waiting to see if their flight would eventually be canceled like the hundreds of others earlier in the day.

The cancellations at O'Hare and Midway are likely to ripple into Friday, when the Chicago Department of Aviation expects 200,000 passengers to pass through O'Hare and about 66,000 passengers through Midway.

The Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation said more than 200 of its salt trucks are on the streets, and 150 others could be dispatched if necessary. The city has 285,000 tons of road salt on hand, but it will wait until temperatures drop to lay it down, said Anne Sheahan, the department's spokeswoman.

IDOT mobilized more than 550 snowplows responsible for roads in northern Illinois, while the Illinois Tollway prepared its full fleet of 182 snowplows to try to clear the 286-mile network of toll roads in 12 northern Illinois counties.

Both transportation agencies said they had stockpiled salt and de-icing materials. Also, the tollway canceled all temporary lane closings.

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