CHICAGO — It's finally looking like winter in parts of the Midwest and Northeast that are seeing their first big snowstorm of the season, leaving skiers and snow-reliant businesses giddy but presenting Friday commuters with a sloppy, slippery drive.
After starting as one of the warmest and brownest winters in recent history, parts of Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri were blanketed in white before the storm moved across Illinois and points east. Snowplow drivers were out in force overnight in Chicago, as six to eight inches of snow and plummeting temperatures moved in.
Nine inches of snow fell in northern Indiana before skies cleared early Friday. Forecasters said cold winds still could whip up lingering lake effect snow showers and push snowfall on Lake Michigan's southern shore above a foot, while Michigan's Upper Peninsula braced for similar totals before the storm continued its eastward roll through Ohio and into New England.
In a typical year, such a storm would hardly register in the Upper Midwest. But the atmospheric patterns, including the Pacific pattern known as La Nina, that have conspired to make this an unusually icy winter in Alaska have kept it abnormally warm in parts of the lower 48 states accustomed to more snow.
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 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."
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 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," Kim Engel, owner of Sunburst Ski area in Kewaskum in southeastern Wisconsin, said as she watched the snow come down out the window.
After a warm fall and early winter, the arrival of blustery weather had Vermont's ski industry celebrating. The Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend is one of the most important moneymaking weekends of the season.
"We are absolutely giddy, stoked, and the phones are ringing off the hook," said Jen Butson, a spokeswoman for the Vermont Ski Areas Association. "It's what we've been hoping for. Our snow dances have paid off."
The snow finally enabled the state's snowmobile organization, the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, to start opening some trails.
In upstate New York, the storm dumped up to 8 inches of snow on the southern Adirondack Mountains and forced scores of schools to cancel or delay the start of classes. Until Thursday's storm, Albany had received only 6.5 inches of snow this winter — about 10 inches less than normal, according to the weather service.
Schools also delayed start times or canceled classes altogether in Ohio, where spots along Lake Erie could get as much of a foot of snow by Saturday afternoon.
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 in Chicago on Thursday, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation. Across town at Midway International Airport, more than 100 flights were canceled.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Carrie Antlfinger in Milwaukee; Jim Salter in St. Louis; Chris Carola in Albany, N.Y.; Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vt.; Caryn Rousseau in Chicago; Tom Coyne in South Bend, Ind.; Carrie Schedler in Indianapolis; Roger Schneider in Milwaukee; and Melanie Welte in Des Moines, Iowa.