A late winter storm that could dump up to 10 inches of snow on Chicago sent authorities in the weather-hardened city into action Tuesday to prevent a repeat of the blizzard of 2011, when hundreds of people in cars and buses were stranded.
The storm system started Sunday in Montana, hit the Dakotas and Minnesota on Monday and then barreled through Wisconsin and Illinois on its way to Washington, where it was expected late Tuesday night.
Some in Chicago were caught off guard by the last gasp from Old Man Winter.
"I thought it was just media hype," said Stacia Copplin, who was fleeing her financial-services job shortly after noon and walking through the blast of wet snow to catch a train to the suburbs.
Schools were closed in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, where officials urged caution on snow-slickened roads. In western Wisconsin, a semi-trailer slid off a snow-covered interstate near Menomonie and into the Red Cedar River, killing one person. Authorities said they were searching for a second person, believed to be a passenger.
Airlines canceled more than 1,100 flights at Chicago airports, prompting delays and closures at others around the region. Airlines along the storm's projected path were already cutting flights too, including about 450 on Wednesday, mostly at Dulles and Reagan National airports in the Washington area, according to FlightAware.com. Daniel Baker, CEO of the flight-tracking service, said he expected the numbers to rise.
In Chicago, officials were working to keep Lake Shore Drive safe. A February 2011 blizzard embarrassed the city by doing the unthinkable - shutting down the iconic lakefront thoroughfare at rush hour, entombing hundreds of cars and buses and trapping passengers overnight.
The city government has taken steps to prevent a repeat. Among the new procedures, officials have opened a removable barrier in the median of the four-lane roadway. Plows and salt-spreading trucks are in easier striking distance of Lake Shore Drive, and they started treating the roadway hours before snow began falling.
"We are prepared as a city to deal with this snow," said Mayor Rahm Emanuel at Chicago's emergency snow-command center, where officials keep an eye on a bank of monitors feeding in real-time images from 1,500 cameras and data from roadway sensors.
The city's full fleet of nearly 300 plows was out in force, but Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams expected a tough afternoon commute. He said it will be easier for plows to move around overnight to get roads clear by morning.