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Detroit News, Mark Bialek, Associated Press
Douglass Cante fills a gas can for his generator at 7:20 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011, at the Marathon gas station on Main Street in Whitmore Lake, Mich. as the major midwest snowstorm begins.

DETROIT — With a potentially historic storm bearing down on Detroit, city officials scrambled Tuesday to prove they're ready to deal with it, 12 years after a former mayor was harshly criticized over his perceived muted response to a similar blizzard.

The political stakes are high for Mayor Dave Bing in responding to a storm that was expected to drop at least 7 inches and possibly as much as 12 inches of snow on the city by late Wednesday. Detroit's woes were just part of a larger system that stretched more than 2,000 miles and threatened to blanket a third of the nation with snow and ice.

Light to heavy snow was falling across most of the state's Lower Peninsula late Tuesday.

Bing's administration wants to avoid a repeat of January 1999 when a three-day blizzard caught then-Mayor Dennis Archer and the city unprepared. Schools closed, mail delivery was slowed and many municipal operations halted as 26 inches of snow clogged residential streets and produced havoc for motorists able to get their vehicles onto main thoroughfares.

Thousands were held captive in their neighborhoods. The city's failure to prepare and plan dogged Archer for the remainder of his time in office.

"This is really important for him to make a good impression with the citizens to do a good job with this snowfall," Detroit businessman and former city resident Marshall Terry said of Bing.

Terry, 40, lived on Detroit's east side in 1999.

"I was blocked in. I had to dig my way out," he said. "When they finally plowed, they blocked my driveway. I came home from work and couldn't get in."

It could be the largest storm to hit Detroit and southeast Michigan since 12.2 inches fell Jan. 22-23, 2005, and comes when Detroit — already buried by an avalanche-like budget deficit of at least $85 million — is looking to spend less, not more.

Bing, a Democrat, has been balancing cost-cutting while trying to retain key city services such as snow removal. But the city likely will have to fork over a significant amount of overtime this week alone, said one union official.

"If we get as much snow as they're predicting . . . I don't foresee any way around it," said Roger Rice, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 229, which represents mechanics who repair tow and salt trucks, and other city vehicles.

The mayor's office didn't speculate Tuesday on what the price tag might be.

"Our measurement will come in the form of safety and convenience for our citizens," spokeswoman Karen Dumas said. "We want them to be prepared and know that we will do everything we can to respond to this storm."

Tuesday afternoon, about four hours before the storm entered Michigan's far southwest corner, Detroit's Homeland Security office and other departments met to review the city's emergency operations plan and procedures involving snow and ice removal.

Bing could declare a snow emergency if accumulations reach 6 inches or more. City crews would plow main roads while contractors would clear residential streets. Employee work schedules would be adjusted.

"Time after time, Detroiters have been let down as far as road conditions go and how the city clears the streets," said 34-year-old Felicia McGee. "I know he (Bing) has his hands full, but this is something he should use to uplift Detroit: 'We are going to do our best to keep the streets clear so people can get to work and get to school.'"

The storm also poses somewhat of a leadership challenge to new Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

Michigan's Emergency Operations Center was expected to be activated Tuesday night to monitor and track the weather system, Snyder said in a news release.

A least one death was blamed on Michigan's wintry weather, a 73-year-old Dansville man who died Tuesday afternoon when his pickup truck skidded on ice and rolled over several times in southwestern Michigan near Grand Rapids. Lyle Foster was dead at the scene.

Many Tuesday night meetings, programs and high school sporting events across the state were called off. The 74,000-student Detroit Public Schools, Kalamazoo, Portage and other districts canceled classes Wednesday.

Classes also were canceled at Michigan State University in East Lansing and Wayne State in Detroit. The University of Michigan canceled classes at its Dearborn and Flint campuses but said they would run as scheduled at the Ann Arbor campus.

Lawmakers in Lansing canceled Wednesday's sessions and committee meetings in anticipation of the storm.

The Kalamazoo County Jail shut down Wednesday's prisoner visitation, and the first shift at General Motors' Flint Assembly plant will not run.

At Pri-Mart Fuel Center in Benton Harbor, the weather is "all everybody has been talking about," said Keith Martin, who was staffing the cash register Tuesday at the truck stop off Interstate 94 in southwestern Michigan.

"All of them are talking about getting off the road," Martin said. "We can probably get 25 to 30 trucks parked in the back. It's free. At the next exit, they charge $10."

The storm was expected to move into southwest Michigan at about 30 mph. Its path will take the snow northeast, possibly hitting the Lansing and Flint areas with as much as 15 inches of snow, according to Amos Dodson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oakland County's White Lake Township.

"We expect a lot of blowing snow, poor visibility and dangerous driving conditions," he said.

Associated Press writers Ed White in Detroit and Kathy Barks Hoffman and Tim Martin in Lansing contributed to this report.