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Late winter storm hammers U.S. East Coast

CHICAGO – A late winter storm packing up to 10 inches of snow sent officials in weather-hardened Chicago into action Tuesday to prevent a repeat of scenes from two years ago, when hundreds of people in cars and buses were stranded on the city’s marquee thoroughfare during a massive blizzard.

The storm was part of a system that started in Montana, hit the Dakotas and Minnesota on Monday and then barrelled through Wisconsin and Illinois on its way to Washington, D.C., where it was expected late Tuesday night. As the storm pushed toward the Mid-Atlantic region, people there were gathering supplies and airlines were cancelling flights.

Since the 2011 blizzard that dumped 20 inches of snow on Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city has had it pretty easy snow-wise, with a relatively mild winter last year and a slow start this year. The storm that was moving through the Midwest on Tuesday had dumped more than 9 inches at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport by 9 p.m.

Preparations for Tuesday’s storm, including warnings to commuters that it was coming, may have paid off. Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Claffey said in an email that traffic was lighter than normal on Chicago expressways Tuesday afternoon, an indication that many people took public transportation instead of cars. Claffey also said there were no reports of any major traffic accidents.

Still, some in Chicago were caught off guard by the last gasp from Old Man Winter. Many left their downtown jobs early, with some saying they had to go home to take care of children after school programs were cancelled or baby sitters couldn’t make it.

Schools were closed in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, where officials urged caution on slick roads. In western Wisconsin, a semi-trailer slid off a snow-covered interstate near Menomonie and into the Red Cedar River, killing one person. The search for a second person, believed to be a passenger, was suspended overnight.

Airlines cancelled more than 1,100 flights at Chicago airports, prompting delays and closures at others. Airlines along the storm’s projected path were already cutting flights too, including about 450 on Wednesday, most of them at Dulles and Reagan National airports in the Washington area, according to FlightAware.com. Daniel Baker, CEO of the flight-tracking service, said he expected the numbers to rise.

In Chicago, officials worked to keep Lake Shore Drive safe. The February 2011 blizzard embarrassed the city when hundreds of cars and buses were entombed in snow on the roadway that runs along Lake Michigan. Many people were trapped overnight.

City government took steps to prevent a repeat. Officials opened a removable barrier in the roadway’s median to allow emergency vehicles quicker access to trouble spots. Plows and salt-spreading trucks were in easier striking distance of Lake Shore Drive, and they started treating the roadway hours before snow began falling.

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