MILWAUKEE — An unusually mild winter finally gave way to the Midwest's first big snowstorm of the season Thursday, blanketing a region unfazed by a white Thanksgiving in a layer of powder and pack that forced all-too-happy snow plow drivers off their couches and into the streets.
The storm dumped several inches of snow on western parts of Wisconsin and Iowa before moving eastward into Milwaukee, St. Louis and Chicago, where up to eight inches were expected to fall by Friday morning.
In a typical year, such a storm would hardly register in the upper Midwest. But for virtually the entire season, cold air has been bottled up over Canada. La Nina, the cooling of the equatorial Pacific Ocean that affects weather worldwide, has nudged the jet stream farther north. And air pressure over the northern Atlantic has steered storm systems away from the East Coast.
For Steve Longo, a 47-year-old chiropractor from Wauwatosa, Wis., the wait to try out the cross country skis he got for Christmas was excruciating. He and friend Alex Ng, 56, wasted no time in hitting the trails at the Lapham Peak cross country ski area, about 25 miles west of Milwaukee.
"I wasn't worried," Longo said. "I was just anxious."
"This is Wisconsin," a confident Ng said. "There's going to be snow."
The storm dumped 2 to 6 inches of snow on eastern Iowa by Thursday evening, and was expected to drop 3 to 8 inches total on southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois as it moves further into the Northeast on Friday, according to Richard Castro, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
While the dry weather has been an unexpected boon to many cash-strapped communities, which have saved big by not having to pay for plowing, salting and sanding their streets, it has hurt the seasonable businesses that bank on the snow.
"If people don't see it in their yards they are not likely to come out and ski and snowboard so this is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful for us," said Kim Engel, owner of Sunburst Ski area in Kewaskum in southeastern Wisconsin, as she watched the snow come down out the window.
Rob Moser, a snow plow driver from Elkhart, Ind., said he couldn't wait for the flakes to start to fall. The weather service said lake effect snow could mean parts of Michigan and northern Indiana could get up to a foot.
"I love it. I make money plowing snow and I'm all about snowmobiling, so I love it," Moser said. "We haven't had enough snow to do much."
The storm was an annoyance for most commuters, and authorities said it caused hundreds of traffic accidents and at least three road deaths — two in Iowa and one in Missouri. And while some lucky grade-schoolers cheered an unexpected day of sledding, hundreds of would-be air travelers had to scramble to come up with a Plan B.
More than 400 flights were canceled at O'Hare International Airport on Thursday and flights that did depart were delayed 20 minutes, on average, because of deicing, the Chicago Department fo Aviation said. Across town at Midway International Airport, more than 100 flights were canceled, although Southwest Airlines said it planned to resume its flights Thursday evening.
In New York state, the storm dumped up to 8 inches of snow on the southern Adirondacks and forced scores of schools to cancel or delay the start of classes. The weather service said until Thursday's storm, Albany had received only 6.5 inches of snow this winter, which is about 10 inches less than it normally gets.
The ice and snow may have caused headaches for travelers, but 44-year-old Mike Norman, of Evanston, Ill., said it's about time. Norman co-founded Chicago Endurance Sports, which offers a Winter Warriors program to help runners stay committed to their training and teach them about the right gear for winter. But he said because of the unseasonably warm weather — temperatures exceeded 50 degrees on Wednesday — the program hasn't really geared up.
"It's one of my favorite times of year to run. It's clean. It's crisp. It's quiet," Norman said. "It's fun to put footsteps in the fresh snow."
Lisa Taylor, the director of the North American Vasa cross-country ski race near Traverse City, Mich., said the storm, which hadn't reached the area yet, would help reinforce the thick base of snow on the rolling trails that they needed for races.
"There's been a great feeling of confidence that we'd get some good snow," Taylor said. "Up in the hilly areas where the trails are, there's already more snow than you'd think."
Associated Press writers Jim Salter in St. Louis, Chris Carola in Albany, N.Y., Carla K. Johnson and Caryn Rousseau in Chicago, Tom Coyne in South Bend, Ind., Carrie Schedler in Indianapolis, John Flesher in Traverse City, Mich., Roger Schneider in Milwaukee and Melanie Welte in Des Moines, Iowa contributed to this report.