CHICAGO – A storm billed as the worst in decades barreled into the Northeast on Wednesday, hammering big cities and small towns alike with deep snow and thick ice, stranding hundreds of motorists and shuttering airports and schools across the Midwest.
By midday, Chicago had received 20.2 inches of snow — the city's third-largest amount on record. A foot or more was dumped on parts of Missouri, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma and upstate New York.
New York City 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.
The system was blamed for at least 10 deaths, including a homeless man who burned to death on Long Island as he tried to light cans of cooking fuel and a woman in Oklahoma City who was killed while being pulled behind a truck on a sled that hit a guard rail.
Skies began to clear in the Midwest by early afternoon, but the forecast called for another powerful punch in the form of bitterly cold temperatures. Overnight temperatures in northern Illinois were expected to fall to minus 5 to minus 20, with wind chills dropping to 20 to 30 below zero.
"Our big concern at this point is cold air behind the system," said Eric Lenning, a Chicago-area weather service meteorologist. "We're definitely not out of woods yet in terms of dangerous winter weather."
Forecasters warned that accumulating ice would knock down some tree limbs and power lines across the storm's more than 2,000-mile path. Multiple roof and structure collapses were reported in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, but no injuries were reported.
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."
Even Chicago — with its legions of snowplows and confidence in the face of the winter weather that would crush other cities — bent under the storm's weight.
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. Others with the doors ajar had filled with snow that engulfed dashboards and steering wheels.
Bulldozers worked to clear the snow from around the cars before tow trucks plucked them out of the drifts one by one. The operation would probably take hours.
As the storm was building to full strength Tuesday evening, 26-year-old Lindsey Wilson sat for hours on a stranded city bus. She eventually 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."
Several newspapers in Missouri and Wisconsin made their online editions available for free to all readers, saying weather conditions made it too dangerous to deliver print editions.
The Tulsa World in Oklahoma did not deliver a print edition for the first time in more than a century.
But for some of those battered by the storm, there was one, thin ray of hope: 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.