CHICAGO - Your weekend plans may need to be adjusted because of a winter storm.
Hunker down if you can, bundle up if you can’t — and keep an eye on each other either way.
That was the message from city leaders Wednesday as Chicago braces for its first major winter storm of the season, a frigid system that might not bring overwhelming amounts of snow but is predicted to generate dangerous white-out conditions throughout the travel-heavy holiday weekend.
Snowfall starting Thursday will be whipped around by gusts topping 50 mph in brutal subzero temperatures, potentially hearkening back to Chicago’s infamous 2011 blizzard that left dozens of motorists stranded on DuSable Lake Shore Drive, according to Rich Guidice, executive director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
All the more reason to stay off the roads before Christmas, if possible, city officials said.
"The cold and high winds can create a situation, especially on Lake Shore Drive, and that’s something that we’re paying particularly close attention to," Guidice said during a news conference outlining the city’s safety plan. "Have patience during this storm."
A winter storm warning from the National Weather Service goes into effect Thursday morning ahead of a steep temperature drop by the afternoon, meteorologist Mike Bardou said.
A light drizzle is expected to turn to snow, ushering in the worst conditions just in time for the evening commute, Bardou said. Temperatures dropping by 25 degrees, into the low teens or single digits, are expected to create dangerously icy conditions.
Up to 4 inches of snow could fall by Thursday night amid serious wind gusts, sending wind chill readings as low as 25 degrees below zero, Bardou said.
Snow is expected to keep falling Friday, with blustery conditions persisting and temperatures barely cracking zero.
Winds are expected to ease slightly on Saturday, with temperatures slowly edging up into the teens on Sunday. Conditions are expected to be treacherous through the weekend.
"The combination of conditions is making for a very dangerous period, especially if you’re traveling or have to spend any time outside," Bardou said. Drivers should keep a full tank of gas and an emergency kit that includes blankets and a flashlight in their cars in case they get stranded.
City officials are also taking steps to keep Chicagoans safe as we experience frigid temperatures. Instead of being open for 12 hours, warming centers operated by the city will offer support around the clock.
If you see someone struggling to stay warm, you're asked to call 3-1-1 and report their location.
Information on city warming centers is available by dialing 311; visiting chicago.gov/fss; and using the CHI311 mobile app. Well-being checks can also be requested at 311.
Officials also urge residents to check in on their neighbors, especially the elderly.
"For our elderly residents, DFSS also activates 21 warming centers at our senior service centers. These locations will also be open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. I want to encourage our seniors to stay home if you can and to avoid dangerous road conditions during the storm. Please pick up your prescriptions and run any needed errands for food or other supplies by Thursday morning," said Brandie Knazze, Commissioner of Department of Family Support and Services.
"It’s critical for residents to be patient, take care of themselves and look out for each other," Guidice said. "Staying connected is key to being safe."
Nearly 3 million travelers are expected to cycle through the city’s airports over the next week. The city’s Department of Aviation is urging passengers to check flight status with their airlines well ahead of time, and to plan to arrive at O’Hare or Midway at least two hours ahead of time for domestic trips and three hours early for international trips.
As always, officials urged drivers to give city snowplows plenty of space to work. At least 300 trucks were at the ready, while the city has more than 400,000 tons of salt on hand, according to Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Cole Stallard.
Officials are warning that driving conditions could be dangerous due to high winds and blowing snow, resulting in delayed holiday travel. Be sure to winterize your vehicle if you are hitting the road.
The city also emphasized a few other bits of Chicago winter safety wisdom:
- Clear snow from fire hydrants on your block if possible to assist firefighters.
- Never use a stovetop or oven to heat your residence.
- Keep a trickle of water running in the faucet farthest away from your local water main to help prevent frozen pipes.
- If they do freeze, use a heating pad or blow-dryer — not an open flame — to thaw them.
- Landlords are required to keep the heat at 68 degrees during the day and 66 overnight in rentals. Call 311 if they’re not complying with this city ordinance.
Meanwhile, the Adler Planetarium has announced it is preemptively closing its doors Friday and Saturday due to the forecast. A spokesperson for the planetarium says the decision comes in an effort to protect both guests and staff.
The museum will be closed on Christmas Day as well, but will welcome visitors again on Monday.
In addition, the CTA is preparing for potential travel disruptions and increasing overnight staffing to keep buses and trains running through this winter storm. The agency says all its trains are equipped with "sleet scrapers" to clear third rails of snow, sleet, and ice.
Switch heaters are also being activated at key terminals.
Travelers are reminded that buses may face delays as plows clear city streets. Updates on any travel disruptions will be posted on the official CTA Twitter account and website.
As for Metra, service will run as usual on Thursday. However, trains will run a modified Saturday schedule on Friday.
Chicago Public Schools will go forward with a full day of classes on Thursday. However, all after school activities have been canceled.
Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.