Repercussions from the heavy snowfall started to sound like the punch line to a joke Thursday:
It snowed so much, Chicago closed its outdoor ice skating rinks. Elmhurst began dumping its snow in a quarry usually reserved for flood overflow. And the Arlington Heights bookmobile, unable to make its usual rounds, offered a reprieve on due dates for library books.
Officials urged people to stay home and allow plows to catch up on major highways and arterials as snowfall reached 18 inches or more in areas such as Gurnee. But experts warned that the biggest danger is yet to come as forecasters predict plummeting temperatures this weekend that are no laughing matter.
“Anybody doing some traveling later this weekend will want to monitor forecasts,” said Edward Fenelon, meteorologist for the National Weather Service. He expects more snow on Saturday night followed by bone-chilling temperatures starting Sunday evening.
“We could stay below zero for as much as two days, on Monday and Tuesday,” said Fenelon. “That could be brutally cold for kids going back to school on Monday.”
The last time that temperatures stayed below zero for 48 hours or longer was Dec. 23-25, 1983, he said.
At least one school district was already considering canceling classes Monday because of the extreme cold. Valley View Community Unit School District 365U, based in Romeoville, will announce a final decision Sunday night, the district said.
It’s the snow that has posed the most challenges over the past few days, producing conditions unrivaled since the Groundhog Day blizzard in 2011, Fenelon said.
The snow forced delays and flight cancellations. At O’Hare International Airport, delays were averaging 45 minutes for all flights, and about 300 flights were canceled Thursday. At Midway International Airport, delays averaged 15 minutes, with fewer than 10 flights canceled, officials said.
The weather also shut down the city’s Divvy bike program, as well as several child care centers and libraries in the northwest suburbs. Harper College in Palatine told its employees to stay home Thursday, and extended its deadline to pay tuition bills for the new semester until Friday, when the campus will reopen.
Across Chicago and the suburbs, snowplow drivers have worked 12-hour shifts as many community departments have been moving snow and laying down salt nonstop since Tuesday.
Anticipating the additional snow that fell Thursday, the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation deployed another 86 snow removal vehicles to help clear streets. The additional equipment — 26 small, four-wheel-drive vehicles and 60 snowplows hitched to garbage trucks —brought the city’s total snow removal fleet to 373 vehicles, said Charles Williams, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation, during a news conference.
The department focused first on clearing Lake Shore Drive and main arterial streets, Williams said. During the 2011 Groundhog Day storm, nearly 1,000 cars were stranded overnight on Lake Shore Drive, and snowfall totals recorded at O’Hare by the National Weather Service exceeded 21 inches.
Thursday evening, the department said it had redeployed 313 pieces of equipment to side and residential streets.
The nonstop snowfall has been hard on staff in towns like northwest suburban Park Ridge, said Public Works Director Wayne Zingsheim.
“The duration of the storm kills any municipality with manpower,” he said. “I’ve been here 25 years, and I can’t remember a long-duration storm like this.”
The storm has been good news for 15-year snowplow veteran Sam Scapellato, who said that this year’s snowfall has meant a boom for his Orland Park business. The past two years of a near snow-drought put some of his smaller rivals out of business. He’s not complaining about the non-stop work.
“I can get a lot of rest in the summertime,” Scapellato said.
As temperatures drop, experts warned that road salt becomes less effective and could complicate efforts to keep streets and highways clear.
“We’ll have to use additives to help activate the salt better,” said Stan Balicki, assistant director of operations for the Downers Grove Public Works Department,.
On Friday, stiff winds could cause the windchill factor to drop to 20 to 25 degrees below zero, said Kent McKenzie, emergency management coordinator for Lake County. Overnight Sunday, actual temperatures could fall as low as minus 15 degrees, he said.
“Our concern is more for people and the things people do without thinking through hazards,” McKenzie said. “Pipes freezing in homes that don’t have as much insulation as they should. And people thawing their pipes with blow torches.”
Residents have started house fires that way, he said. Instead, he recommends that residents allow their faucets to keep dripping or purchase blanket wraps or tape designed to protect pipes from freezing.
Experts also cautioned motorists to take special precautions to prevent breakdowns or accidents.
Most cars are equipped with all-season tires, but even those can become stiff and less pliable when they are extremely cold, providing less traction, said Joe Henmueller, director of the Arlington Heights-based Automotive Maintenance and Repair Association. Drivers should make sure the tires are properly inflated, he said.
The cold also renders many vital fluids — oil, steering, and transmission fluid — more viscous, which means that they provide less lubrication until the car has warmed up. Motorists should let their cars idle for two or three minutes before driving them, and should drive slowly for 10 or 15 minutes to allow the fluids to reach the correct operating temperatures.
“You should never just drive off,” Henmueller said.
While driving conditions have been hazardous, most communities reported only minor accidents and spinouts.
Some weather-related injuries have been reported.
Dr. Daryl Wilson, EMS medical director for Edward Hospital in Naperville, said his emergency room has seen upward of 40 “slip and fall” injuries since the snow arrived. Those often result in sprained ankles and broken wrists, and the treatment, ironically enough, includes ice.
“The culprit is now your friend,” he said.
Staff reporters Matthew Walberg, Kim Geiger, John Keilman, Andrew Grimm, Quan Truong, Dawn Rhodes, Annemarie Mannion, Sally Ho, Karen Ann Cullotta, Jonathan Bullington, Dan Waters, Melissa Jenco, Stephanie Baer, Gregory Trotter, Greg Pratt and Kate Jacobson and freelance reporter Joseph Ruzich contributed.