More than 1,200 flights canceled as winter storm pummels Chicago area

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 / STMW / AP) - A winter storm pummeled the Chicago area Wednesday, dumping more than a foot of snow over parts of northwest Indiana and canceling more than 1,200 flights at city airports.

By early evening, Cedar Lake, Indiana topped the region with 13 inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service. Whitewashed roads and blizzard conditions forced the Porter County sheriff’s office to declare a state of emergency on their highways when snow plows couldn’t keep up with the snowfall.

The snow didn’t stick as well in Chicago, with totals ranging between an inch and 2 inches by late afternoon, forecasters said.

It was enough for airlines to cancel more than 975 flight’s at O’Hare as of 8:30 p.m., with delays between half an hour and 90 minutes, according to the city’s Department of Aviation. At least 310 flights were grounded at Midway with others delayed an average of 20 minutes.

Metra lines didn’t have any major delays Wednesday, but the transit agency warned customers to allow for extra travel time if the weather created “unanticipated delays or service disruptions.”

Several Illinois school districts preemptively canceled classes Wednesday morning in anticipation of the storm, and many more did likewise in Indiana, where the lake-effect snow was heaviest.

The strong winds and slushy conditions were expected to taper off by Thursday morning, though more flurries were possible in the afternoon as temperatures top out at 34, forecasters said.

As the evening rush hour got underway, the National Weather Service warned the wet snow falling in Chicago, its southern suburbs and northwest Indiana could make travel very dangerous. The weather service said motorists should avoid the roadways if possible.

"The driving is terrible," said Dan Hale, a South Bend bus driver transporting residents of a downtown senior center on a shopping trip. "The plows have been out and they've been doing what they can, but you just have to be careful, take it easy. We can handle this."

Northern Indiana was expected to see the heaviest snow, as powerful winds blowing off Lake Michigan could keep snow piling up past midnight and bury the area in up to 18 inches. State Police said northbound lanes of Interstate 65 in northwestern Indiana were closed temporarily due to jackknifed semitrailers. Two counties in the area issued declarations permitting only emergency vehicles on the roads and warning violators could be ticketed.

In South Bend, in addition to slick roads and slushy sidewalks, the National Weather Service was reporting wind gusts of up 30 mph late Wednesday afternoon. But Kevin Koak, owner of the Saigon Market Oriental Food, was not impressed as he plowed his parking lot and cleared the sidewalk.

"The way they were talking about it, I thought it was going to be really bad. I mean, this is nothing," he said.

Before it was expected to it move east early Thursday, the storm was forecast to drop up to 15 inches in Valparaiso and Gary.

In Michigan, the winds were so strong, they caused the Saginaw River to swell and appear to flow backward, though it remained well below flood stage, The Bay City Times reported.

The winter weather warnings from the National Weather Service stretched southwest through all of Illinois and into Missouri, where several inches had fallen, leading to school closures and downed power lines. Blizzard warnings were posted for counties in eastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana.

Illinois State Police reported 229 crashes, vehicles in ditches, stranded motorists and calls for service between midnight and Wednesday evening. Classes were cancelled at Illinois State University in Normal and Eastern Illinois University in Charleston due to the weather.

Real estate agent Debora Auble had shoveled snow and salted sidewalks at three homes and her downtown office in Champaign, Illinois, by midmorning Wednesday. She wasn't exactly enjoying it.

"No, not at all. To be in and out of it is pretty brutal," she said as police cleaned up following what appeared a minor traffic accident outside her office. "And the roads are really treacherous. It's been a long time since I've seen the snow blowing that you can't see the traffic lights."

Just about every school was closed in Champaign. But students at the University of Illinois, which almost never closes, had to trudge through biting, wet snow.

Bands of heavy snow extending from St. Louis to Chicago caused several semis to jackknife and power lines to fall on Illinois highways. Winds left behind 3-foot-high snow drifts on one interstate. State police said travelling was "extremely dangerous" and urged people not to venture out unless they had an emergency.

Dave Vitolka owns Cross Cuts Lawn and Service in Homewood. He says the day before a potential snow storm, his phone is ringing off the hook.

“The day before it snows, especially for something like this where they are calling for 6, 8, 10 inches, we don't know what we are getting, we get phone calls from people that we never got phone calls from  before,” Vitolka said.

So far this winter, he's only been out 5-6 times with his crews clearing driveways and parking lots.

“Can't complain too much because the last few years has been kind of hectic with snow, but this year has been a little slow,” he said.

A little slow indeed for city crews as well.

“The crews are kind of looking forward to the snow coming. If it's a winter like it was last year, they were getting real tired of seeing it snow,” Vitolka added.

Homewood Public Works Director John Schaefer says he's a little concerned with what could come after the snowfall on Wednesday.

“They are forecasting some high winds with this to follow up, so that could create some power outages and tree limbs come down and across roads and across power lines,” Schaefer said.

But they have the crews and salt ready to clean up whatever falls from the sky.

“In previous years at this time of year, we would be scrambling around like last year for salt because we had such a rough winter. This year we have plenty on hand actually and I have to worry about where we are going to store it,” Schaefer added.

Some schools in Michigan and Indiana also cancelled classes.

"It's a good thing we closed," said Superintendent Tom Fletcher of the Twin Lakes School Corp. in Indiana. "Our roads are ice-covered and the wind's howling and the rain and the snow is coming down."

Michigan closed many state government offices, but kept its Emergency Operations Center open to manage the water crisis in the city of Flint and monitor the storm. The state kept open bottled water and filter distribution sites in Flint, which is under a state of emergency because of its lead-contaminated water supply.

Flint was expected to get 8 to 12 inches of snow, and officials urged residents to make sure they have enough filters, cartridges and bottled water on hand.

Drivers were warned that there could be no visibility at times on the state's roadways.

The winds sent high waves crashing into shorelines on both sides of Lake Michigan, with forecasters warning Chicago area residents to expect minor flooding and beach erosion.