The storm rolling into Chicago was expected to dump the most snow the city has seen since the 2011 blizzard. The storm system started Sunday in Montana, hit the Dakotas and Minnesota on Monday and then barreled through Wisconsin and Illinois on its way to Washington, where it was expected late Tuesday night.
Even in Chicago, some were caught off guard by the last gasp from Old Man Winter.
"I thought it was just media hype," said Stacia Copplin, who was fleeing her financial services job shortly after noon and walking through the blast of wet snow to catch a train to the suburbs.
Schools were closed in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, where officials urged caution on snow-slickened roads. In western Wisconsin, a semi-trailer slid off a snow-covered interstate near Menomonie and into the Red Cedar River, killing one person. Authorities said they were searching for a second person, believed to be a passenger.
Airlines canceled more than 1,100 flights at Chicago airports, prompting delays and closures at others around the region. Airlines along the storm's projected path were already cutting flights too, including about 450 on Wednesday, mostly 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 were working to keep Lake Shore Drive safe. A February 2011 blizzard embarrassed the city by doing the unthinkable - shutting down the iconic lakefront thoroughfare at rush hour, entombing hundreds of cars and buses and trapping passengers overnight.
The city government has taken steps to prevent a repeat. Among the new procedures, officials have opened a removable barrier in the median of the four-lane roadway. Plows and salt-spreading trucks are in easier striking distance of Lake Shore Drive, and they started treating the roadway hours before snow began falling.
"We are prepared as a city to deal with this snow," said Mayor Rahm Emanuel at Chicago's emergency snow command center, where officials keep an eye a bank of monitors feeding in real-time images from 1,500 cameras and data from roadway sensors.
The city's full fleet of nearly 300 plows were out in force, but Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams expected a tough afternoon commute. He said it will be easier for plows to move around overnight to get roads clear by morning.
Hardware stores in and around Chicago did a brisk business selling salt and snow shovels.
"Everybody's a bit surprised, but it's good for us. We've got a lot of this stuff to move," said Mike McIntosh, who works at Dressel's Hardware in Oak Park just outside Chicago.
Workers had started to stock the shelves with tools and supplies associated with spring and summer, only to find the shovels and salt they thought they'd hold for another year were still in demand.