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'We got lucky. … It could've been worse:' Forecaster says snow could return but worst of storm is behind Chicago

Katherine Rosenberg-Douglas, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Weather News

CHICAGO -- High waves have receded, winds have died down and as Chicagoans assess the much-hyped storm, they're finding little evidence in terms of overall snowfall.

Even suburban areas to the north and west, where meteorologists had expected as much as 6 inches of snow, saw significantly less than that. Weather spotters in Crystal Lake, in McHenry County, reported 1.5 inches of snow as of 4 a.m., and there was 2.1 inches of snow at the Rockford Airport in Winnebago County, according to the National Weather Service.

Meteorologist Mark Ratzer said northern Illinois "did pretty well, overall."

"We got lucky with most respects. The snow last evening was not quite as long in duration or as heavy as it could've been. It could've been worse," he said.

Other areas were battered by heavy rain, such as 2 inches in Park Forest and 3.15 inches in Cedar Lake, Indiana. But Ratzer said by far the wind, and crashing waves it helped create on Lake Michigan, as well as the flight delays it caused, was the main story.

He wouldn't necessarily say it was a perfect storm in terms of its effect on air travel, but he said it was rare -- only about 10% of the time -- that winds can wreak so much havoc on airports before a single snowflake falls. That was partly because of the north-to-northwest direction of the wind since O'Hare International Airport has almost entirely east- and west-facing runways. It has just two runways that are northeast- and southwest-facing.

 

"Whereas on a typical day they can have 114 arrivals an hour, (Saturday) the arrival rate was more like 22 an hour, because of the strong winds," Ratzer said. "Because they couldn't use (the other runways), they mainly used a pair of northeast-southwest runways, one for arrivals and one for departures."

Planes generally take off and land into the wind, he said, so the direction of the wind wasn't necessarily problematic. But the strength was.

"You get above a certain threshold and the crosswind is just too much," he said. "It doesn't happen often. East/west runways favor 90% of the weather scenarios. But you couple high speed and that direction and then the rain and freezing rain, making it slick -- they also had to go out and treat the runways."

The result meant instituting "ground delays" elsewhere: Airports with flights into O'Hare had to delay departure because there was only one usable runway for arrivals.

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