Weather Updates

Report suggests ways to avoid repeat of Blizzard of 2011 fiasco

More than 500 cars were stranded Lake Shore Drive during February blizzard thdumped 20.3 inches snow Chicago. The road was

More than 500 cars were stranded on Lake Shore Drive during the February blizzard that dumped 20.3 inches of snow on Chicago. The road was closed for 33 hours before tow trucks came for the vehicles. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 24, 2011 12:23AM

After a five-month post-mortem about the Blizzard of 2011 fiasco, Chicago’s top emergency officer was asked Monday how he intends to prevent another shutdown on Lake Shore Drive.

Gary Schenkel’s answer had nothing to do with the 12-page report’s proposal to install cuts in median planters along the Drive to provide access for emergency equipment and give stranded motorists a place to turn around.

Nor did Schenkel mention the city’s decision to identify “systematic triggers” for shutting down Lake Shore Drive, install four additional cameras to bolster the 13 already monitoring conditions along the Drive or stage towing equipment along the lakefront when extreme weather is on the way.

“We’re gonna pray a lot and hope that God doesn’t dump another 40 inches of snow on us,” said Schenkel, executive director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

Asked whether anybody needs to be taken to the woodshed for what happened on Lake Shore Drive, Schenkel replied, “Absolutely not.”

In fact, if he had it to do all over again, Schenkel said he would “probably not” close Lake Shore Drive before the storm hit. Instead, he would “wait for the situation to develop” as his predecessor did on Groundhog Day.

“As an outside observer from about 1,000 miles away, I thought this was a fantastic response to the unprecedented snowfall for 2011. Having suffered through a couple in Washington D.C. myself, I can certainly see a difference in the response within Chicago and out in the D.C. area,” he said.

Jose Santiago, Schenkel’s predecessor, argued that nothing could have prevented the Lake Shore Drive fiasco.

“There are a lot of cars on Lake Shore Drive. Shutting down Lake Shore Drive and putting all of those cars in the Central Business District — you’d be asking the question, ‘Why did you do that?’ ” Santiago said.

“We made the best decisions around-the-clock in order not to create, possibly what happened in 1999 where the entire place was gridlocked.”

The Groundhog Day blizzard that buried Chicago in 20.3-inches of snow left 525 vehicles stuck for hours on Lake Shore Drive.

Three accidents in 28 minutes — followed by ramp closures caused by high winds, drifting snow and white-out conditions — kept the Drive closed for 33 hours before a cavalcade of tow trucks removed the vehicles.

The event prompted questions about why the Drive wasn’t closed to traffic before the storm, why it took the city up to 14 hours to rescue stranded motorists and why Chicago lacked a contingency towing and evacuation plan.

The 12-page report released Monday makes a series of recommendations to prevent a repeat performance.

In addition to median cuts, more cameras, staging towing equipment — possibly at Soldier Field or Millennium Park — and developing “clearly identified triggers” for a systematic shut down, the plan proposes that Mayor Rahm Emanuel:

◆ Stage CTA buses to be used as warming centers for pedestrians if an extreme weather event is anticipated and initiate CTA re-routes based on observed conditions.

◆ Develop a parking plan for towed vehicles and reiterate this plan to private tow contractors.

◆ Identify alternate shelters (north, south, central and west) close to CTA train stations.

◆ Explore the possibility of issuing “interoperable radios” to responding personnel and purchasing towing equipment capable of removing large buses like the articulated buses that brought the Drive to a standstill.

◆ Keep a list of truck contractors available with National Incident Management Systems classified equipment and resources.

Asked to pinpoint the recommendation he considers most important, Schenkel said, “The biggest thing that we learned from this is that there’s limited access for emergency responders on Lake Shore Drive. ...If there’s anything that we need to really take a hard look at, it’s that.”

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