CHICAGO — Mother Nature apparently saved the best, or at least the biggest, for last.
Chicago was hit Tuesday by a storm expected to dump as much as 10 inches of snow in the area before the end of the day — the most since the 2011 blizzard and its more than 20 inches of snow.
"This will be the biggest widespread storm of the winter," National Weather Service meteorologist Amy Seeley said. The forecast was for 8 to 10 inches throughout northeastern Illinois and northwest Indiana, a far cry from last March, which saw less than a half-inch of snow and was the warmest one on record in Illinois.
Airlines canceled nearly 1,000 flights at Chicago airports as the storm rolled in Tuesday morning, while officials throughout the region warned of slippery roads. In western Wisconsin, a semi-trailer slid off a snow-covered interstate and into a river. State Patrol Sgt. Dave Fish said a dive-and-rescue team had been called to search the Red Cedar River near Menomonie for the driver.
Hardware stores in and around Chicago have been doing a brisk business, selling salt and snow shovels at a time when many usually turn their thoughts toward gardening and baseball.
"Everybody's got a little comment with every bag they're buying," 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.
"Everybody's a bit surprised, but it's good for us, we've got a lot of this stuff to move," McIntosh said Monday.
On Monday, the system moved across the Dakotas and Minnesota, dropping up to a foot of snow in some areas and freezing rain in others. Some schools closed and officials warned motorists to stay off the roads.
As it moved eastward, emergency officials in a number of states issued similar warnings in the hopes that commuters will leave their cars in the garage and take public transportation to work. In Wisconsin, where as much as a foot of snow is in the forecast, emergency managers urged residents to put winter survival kits in their vehicles and check on road conditions.
A wet snow pelted commuters as they slid along the slick streets of downtown Chicago through the soggy wintery mix early Tuesday. Snow was forecast for the morning and afternoon rush hours, Seeley said. The weather service also said that as much as 1.5 inches of snow could fall per hour, "making snow removal difficult and travel extremely dangerous."
Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn urged motorists to avoid driving unless absolutely necessary, insisting that "safety comes first."
The Illinois Department of Transportation planned to send a fleet of 360 trucks to plow roadways in northeastern Illinois early Tuesday, with a total of 600 throughout Northern Illinois.
The storm is creating wet, heavy snow — known euphemistically as "heart attack snow" — which could pose a risk when it comes time to shovel for the elderly, sedentary people or those who have heart problems.
"Shoveling snow is a lot of work. ... It is taxing their bodies and their hearts," said Dr. David Marmor, a cardiologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston. "People are really testing their limits, and if they're already at high risk they are better off paying the kid across the street to do it."
If the area does get 10 inches of snow, it would only underline that this has been a mild winter, Seeley said. That amount would raise the snowfall this season from 20.3 inches to 30.3 inches — just a tenth of an inch more than what Chicago sees in a typical winter.
In northern Iowa early Tuesday, at least one person was enjoying the gentle snowfall.
"It's absolutely gorgeous out," said Mary Hermanson, the night shift front desk clerk at the Super 8 in Mason City.
"If I'm going to have snow come down, that's what I want to have come down," she said of the 10 inches that had fallen in the area in the past 24 hours. She happily said it reminded her of Christmas.
Associated Press writers Nelson Lampe in Omaha, Neb., and Gretchen Ehlke in Milwaukee contributed to this report.