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Heroic efforts help us get through Blizzard of ‘11

Sam Yasclears few feet snow from his driveway Wednesday Feb. 2 2011 Brett Drive MokenIll. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

Sam Yasin clears a few feet of snow from his driveway Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011, on Brett Drive in Mokena, Ill. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

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The blizzard of 2011 still came up short to 1967 and 1999. Here’s a look back at the coverage in the Sun-Times for other big storms.

Complete coverage of Blizzard 2011
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Updated: May 21, 2012 1:49PM

Some 700 billion pounds of snow fell on Chicago and Cook County last Tuesday night and Wednesday, according to my calculations.

Although “fell” is too passive a word for precipitation that was delivered to earth, not tumbling gently as snowflakes ought to, but driven, flung, blasted by wind gusts that hit 70 miles an hour on the lakefront.

The snowstorm was met by fierce local resistance, by snowplows — 274 in the City of Chicago alone, augmented by 100 garbage trucks fitted with plows and hundreds more in the suburbs — by tens of thousands of spouting, straining snowblowers and shovels uncounted, as Midwesterners fought to beat back Mother Nature’s fury.

It was the third greatest snowstorm in Chicago history — 20.2 inches officially at O’Hare, (20.9 inches at Midway; the South Side always has it tougher) though “the blowing and drifting made snowfall measurement very challenging, even for the most experienced weather observers,” according to Jim Allsopp at the National Weather Service.

It was the heaviest snowfall ever in Chicago in the month of February. The most snow in the Chicago region fell on Highland, Ind., nearly two feet — 23.9 inches, according to the National Weather Service. Rockford had 14.3 inches, making it that city’s fourth-greatest snowfall in history.

Nothing thrills quite like a storm, and before the Blizzard of ’11 is hung on a hook to dry in the Great Garage of Memory, it’s worth taking one last look at our storm for the record books.

We certainly saw this one coming. Monday the National Weather Service caught the public’s attention — sometimes jaded when it comes to weather warnings that may or may not come true — by predicting a “dangerous, multifaceted and potentially life-threatening winter storm.”

Nor were we alone — blizzard warnings went out across seven states, sweeping in an arc from Oklahoma to Ohio.

On Tuesday commuters wore their boots downtown, conducted their business and hightailed it home — by noon, rush hour-volume crowds were streaming into Union Station, and by 2 p.m. Metra was operating on a “load and go” basis, filling special expresses and sending them off. By 5 p.m. Ogilvie Station was described as “bedlam” as commuters crowded their way onto trains facing delays from frozen switches.

On Tuesday night the snow blew horizontally, the winds ripped off roofs — Wrigley Field lost part of a roof, two towers at the First Baptist Congregational Church collapsed — and downed power lines: Tens of thousands of ComEd customers lost power. The wind was joined by hail, thunder and lightning, making for a rare “thunder snow.” There were drifts up to 10 feet deep.

Gov. Quinn mobilized the Illinois National Guard, which deployed 500 guardsmen, mostly along the interstate highways, assisting stranded motorists and handing out snacks.

At least a dozen people died — of exposure, or after shoveling or pushing stuck cars. The biggest mess was Lake Shore Drive, rendered impassable Tuesday evening by several accidents and sudden whiteout conditions. Hundreds of motorists were stranded for eight hours or more. Though it seems 20/20 hindsight to ask why the Drive wasn’t closed earlier, since, with traffic moving, there was no good reason to close it, and had it been closed, the question now would be: Why was Lake Shore Drive closed unnecessarily?

We can probably save that question for next time, since skittish city officials are certain to leap to shut down Lake Shore Drive at the first snowflakes, the way that, for years after Michael Bilandic lost City Hall after failing to keep the streets clean, city snowplows would be seen on the shoulders, idling and ready at the merest rumor of snow.

Wednesday was a day when the City That Works didn’t, for the most part. Cook County and hundreds of smaller employers told non-essential workers to stay home, and the demands of clearing their own driveways and parking spaces took up the bulk of the day. Statistics on consumption of Aleve are not yet available, but expect a spike.

Almost no U.S. mail was delivered in the Chicago metropolitan region Wednesday. The Chicago Public Schools, which hadn’t had a snow day in a dozen years, had two, taking Thursday off for good measure.

Brookfield Zoo closed for the second time in 77 years (the first was just in 2008, because of flooding) as did the courts and the City Colleges. The Art Institute closed for the first time since 9/11, as did the city’s other major museums.

Those who had to get around used extraordinary means — Chicago Fire Department paramedics used snowmobiles to reach patients. All those high-clearance, fuel-guzzling Hummers that everybody likes to laugh at suddenly didn’t seem so funny.

This was the first Internet blizzard — people commented and commiserated on social media, and posted videos of snowdrifts on YouTube.

“Facebook gave me something fun to do,” said Vicki High, of Chicago Heights. “I kept up with my friends and how they were coping.”

“It created community,” said Tonia Lorenz of Chicago. “I was inside, alone, lights flickering and thunder and lightning making it seem very scary indeed. But I had my laptop and was seeing posts from a cousin in Peoria who was 30 minutes ahead in storm experience and telling me what to expect, and seeing posts from people in my area who were all in similar situations as me. I felt connected and part of a group, even though I was physically alone.”

It also made working at home easier for thousands of employees as Wednesday’s snow day spilled over into Thursday.

“We closed our offices Tuesday afternoon at 3 to allow people a safe commute,” said Dr. Kathy O’Loughlin, executive director of the American Dental Association. “Many people were online all through the storm on Wednesday getting work through a [secure] connection.”

She said that with schools closed and transportation tentative Thursday, the choice of whether to come into work or not was left up to each of the ADA’s 426 employees.

“We sent a notice that we encouraged them to come to work,” said O’Loughlin. “But if they couldn’t — if their children were at home and safety was an issue — that was quite fine too and they could work at home.”

The snow fell on the first hotly contested mayoral campaign in more than 20 years, and candidates were not about to let a complete paralysis of the city slow down electioneering.

“We spent most of the day shoveling,” said Brooke Anderson, spokeswoman for Gery Chico. “Gery came in and took a bunch of staff and volunteers out to Logan Square to shovel, and we went to Pilsen to help in neighborhoods and dig people out.”

Was that campaign shoveling or good samaritan shoveling?

“Good samaritan shoveling,” she said immediately

Rahm Emanuel, meanwhile, was busy shoveling too, in Roscoe Village, and was photographed pushing a Chicago Police Department vehicle out of the snow, though whether he was helping them, or they were helping him, I don’t know.

The good news — besides the city enduring the storm with a maximum of fortitude and a minimum of tragedy — is that the region has already overdrawn its usual allotment of snow. On average, Chicago receives 38 inches — this year, so far, we’ve already gotten 47. 5 inches.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s still the first week in February in a city where it has been known to snow in May — the latest measurable snowfall hit Chicago on May 11, 1966. Let’s hope that record’s safe.

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