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City stands by Lake Shore Drive closing

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City officials on Wednesday defended their decision to keep Lake Shore Drive open for hours Tuesday as white-out conditions made driving treacherous and eventually turned Chicago’s signature roadway into a parking lot.

The city didn’t close the Drive until 7:58 p.m. Tuesday after three crashes — including one involving a CTA bus — happened between Fullerton and Belmont between 7 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Two more crashes happened south of Fullerton after 7:30, further contributing to a traffic mess that left some motorists stuck in their cars for as long as 12 hours before rescue workers removed them or they abandoned their vehicles on their own. Bus passengers got stuck, too.

As the sun set Wednesday, more than 200 cars, SUVs, trucks and buses remained parked on Lake Shore Drive. City officials said they were removing those vehicles but did not set a timeline for reopening the road.

Mayor Daley’s Chief of Staff, Ray Orozco, insisted “traffic was moving slow, but it was moving” before the rapid-fire string of crashes.

But some of the 900 drivers who had their cars towed off Lake Shore Drive described gridlocked conditions well before then.

Chicago Public Schools teacher Shannon Jenkins, 23, said she got on the northbound Drive around the Museum Campus about 4:15 p.m. Tuesday. It took her some 2 hours, 45 minutes to travel about six miles to La Salle Drive en route to her apartment in Lincoln Park.

Like many motorists, Jenkins didn’t arrive home until the wee hours Wednesday. She was stranded on the Drive until 2 a.m., during which time her 2003 Buick Century’s battery died.

Juan S. Diaz, 29, got on the Drive at Oak Street around 6:45 p.m. and immediately hit a wall of traffic.

The city “should have had people out there sooner closing off those lanes,” Diaz said. “I should have never been allowed to get on.”

Lincoln Park resident Julius Jellinek, who was trapped on Lake Shore Drive for six hours, called it “a disgrace” that the city took as long as it did to move cars blocking exit ramps.

“There was absolutely no reason to hold us hostage,” he said. “With a little planning or a little thinking, they could take all of the cars off Lake Shore Drive, the ones that were stuck.”

Aware of the complaints, Orozco took full responsibility for the timing of the Drive shutdown and apologized to the hundreds of motorists who were inconvenienced.

Still, Orozco said he made “the right decision” in waiting until nearly 8 p.m. to close the road. He said he weighed the effect of diverting traffic off Lake Shore Drive sooner and concluded the city would be safer without thousands of cars spilling onto local roads.

“In a storm of this magnitude there is no way to predict from minute to minute what problems may arise,” Orozco said. “But what we know at this time is no serious injuries or loss of life [happened] based upon the option that I chose during what was called a life-threatening storm.

“What we believe is we obtained the best possible outcome.”

On Wednesday night, city officials would not provide information about snow removal or Lake Shore Drive, as they summoned media for a news conference at a West Side warming center.

“By coming to 10 South Kedzie, we’re focusing on the next phase of the storm; and that’s the getting out of the storm,”said Mary Ellen Caron, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Family and Support Service, who added she could not answer questions about snow removal on side streets and other services.

Instead, she discussed ways to stay warm.

On Tuesday, high winds and rapid snow accumulation left Lake Shore Drive and its ramps tough to navigate. Drivers were left wondering if they should abandon their cars, wait for emergency help or see if the storm would subside and they could resume their trips.

“I figured I’m going to die here,” said Don Levy, 63, a professional photographer, who was stranded for nine hours on Lake Shore Drive. “It was like looking through a milkshake, a vanilla milkshake. It was nuts.”

Tow truck crews worked Wednesday to get the 900 stranded vehicles to lots and streets just east of the drive, with staging areas set up at Wilson, Belmont, Chicago and Wells.

Cars towed off the drive had their windshield wipers up — a sign they’d been searched by emergency workers and there were no people inside.

More than 130 firefighters were deployed to Lake Shore Drive, along with 30 firefighter medics on snowmobiles, and 100 Chicago police officers.

Patrick Waldron, of Andersonville, was just north of the North Avenue exit when Lake Shore Drive was closed around 7 p.m.

He remained stuck there until 4:30 a.m. when police officers cleared the North Avenue ramp with a large piece of snow-moving equipment, allowing him and other motorists to back up and get off.

Waldron passed the time by texting and calling friends, listening to talk radio and observing the surreal scene around him.

“You saw everything from firefighters on snowmobiles and a cross-country skier in the southbound lanes,” he said. “One woman knocked on my door. She had granola bars and bottled water, and she was just trying to give them away to people stuck in their cars.

“It was incredible to see the kindness of people,” he said.

Diaz, who ended up stuck for eight hours on the drive, also praised the “good samaritans” who came out from their high-rises after midnight to hand out food and water.

“At the end of the day, I saw more of them than any city personnel,” he said.

Contributing, Cheryl V. Jackson

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