Can-do Chicagoans cope with a storm for the ages

From frazzled travelers at O'Hare Airport to stranded passengers on the'El,' Windy City residents find 20 inches of snow hard to handle.

From the frigid shores of Lake Michigan to the rain-soaked coast of Florida, residents revved up snow blowers or fired up wet-dry vacs after one of the biggest storms in decades descended on America's midsection this weekend.

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, from Boston to the New Jersey shores, people shuttered windows and stocked up on salt, ready for the remnants of the Midwest storm to descend.

In Chicago, even the city's sky-blue garbage trucks were armed with snow plows - and were among the 700 vehicles moving mountains of snow. Some 1,400 workers were on 12-hour shifts trying to get "the city that works" working again.

Mayor Richard M. Daley pleaded for people's patience. "This task will be enormous," he said. "This is a major storm, and the cleanup will take time, perhaps days."

Political perils of storm

With his reelection vote scheduled for February, Mayor Daley was certainly mindful of the political perils of not acting fast after a major storm.

In 1979, Mayor Michael Bilandic's crews were slow to dig out the city from a big storm. Snow was unplowed, and garbage was uncollected. Mr. Bilandic lost the next election - largely, it is said, because of his lack of empathy with the snowbound.

Indeed, for all their Midwestern pleasantness, Chicagoans can be icily impatient.

"I feel like I'm in a lock-up," said one woman, who had been waiting 45 minutes to travel just one stop on an El train. "Don't they know we're ready to bust out of this train?" she grumped, as fellow passengers nodded in agreement.

But 45 minutes was nothing for the thousands of travelers at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport whose flights were cancelled.

The 20 inches of snow virtually paralyzed the nation's busiest airport and turned it into "Camp O'Hare," with 400 cots rolled out to accommodate the stranded.

And on Sunday, these passengers woke up to a bottleneck of people trying to reschedule. United Airlines, for instance, was sending out only half its flights.

Flights headed east, in the direction of the storm, were especially likely to be cancelled.

In St. Louis, which got nearly 8 inches of snow and ice, Trans World Airlines hoped to be back to full strength this morning. Southwest Airlines also worked to get back in the air. On Saturday it ran out of all-important glycol, a wing de-icing chemical.

One of Chicago's worst

Back in Chicago, the storm was being hailed as one of the three worst since record keeping began in 1885.

It even forced the suburban Willow Creek Community Church - one of the nation's biggest megachurches where 17,000 people usually show up on Sundays - to shutter its doors. That hadn't happened in more than 20 years, church officials said.

But compared with other storms, the havoc wasn't so bad. Only about 1,000 residents were without electricity by yesterday morning, some 12 hours after the storm subsided, despite 35 m.p.h. winds that whipped off Lake Michigan.

Electric company officials attributed their preparedness to better weather forecasting. By knowing the storm was coming, they were able to "predeploy" 300 crews on 16-hour shifts to quickly restore any power outages.

And as sun dawned on the snow-sunk city, a glimmer of that famed Midwestern heartiness shone through.

"This is a piece of cake," said resident Fred Hall, his forehead glistening in the morning sun after an hour of digging out his snow-covered car.

"And I've got another car to go - gotta make sure the wife can get out too," he said with a dutiful smile.

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