Chicago winter wallop: Blizzard, dangerous wind chills, half-foot of snow predicted

Worst conditions to develop Thursday night, with a possible blizzard and dangerously low temperatures expected by Friday, the National Weather Service warned.

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Chicago could get hit with a major snowstorm this week, like the one that hit last February.

Chicago could get hit with a major storm this week, like the one that hit in February, covering this North Side street in snow.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A major winter storm is expected to hit the Chicago area ahead of Christmas, with blizzard-like conditions in some places, at least half a foot of snow and dangerous wind chills that could lead to “life-threatening cold.”

The National Weather Service issued a winter storm watch extending from Thursday evening through Saturday morning. Total snowfall amounts may vary as the storm gets closer, but forecasts of strong winds and plummeting temperatures have remained constant.

“The snow is not the main story with this storm,” the weather service said.

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“Confidence continues to increase that a major winter storm will impact the western Great Lakes region Thursday through Saturday with heavy snow, strong winds and bitterly cold temperatures,” the weather service said.

“The worst conditions will develop Thursday evening and continue into Friday evening, with a full-fledged blizzard possible accompanied by dangerously cold temperatures,” it said. “The bitterly cold temperatures will continue through the weekend.”

The storm is expected to begin as a mix of rain and snow Thursday afternoon, changing to just snow later into the night, when the low is expected to fall to 4 degrees.

The current forecast is for the heaviest snow to fall Friday, driven by high winds as strong as 55 miles an hour that could create blizzard-like conditions. The high will only be near 8.

High winds and frigid temperatures may lead to power outages in some areas, leaving homes without heat. ComEd said it’s preparing additional crews and equipment to respond to emergencies ahead of the storm.

“We realize that any interruption is an inconvenience to our customers, especially during the holidays,” ComEd President Terry Donnelly said in a statement. “Avoiding power outages and restoring service quickly is critical. We have strengthened our system over the years to reduce the impacts a storm like this can have on our customers.”

The snow should taper off Christmas Eve, but the high will only reach around 10 degrees, and the low around zero. Christmas Day is expected to be mostly sunny, with a high near 11.

“Travel could be very difficult,” the weather service said. “Areas of blowing snow could significantly reduce visibility. The hazardous conditions could impact the morning or evening commutes. Gusty winds could bring down tree branches.

“Wind chills as low as 30 below zero could cause frostbite on exposed skin in as little as 30 minutes,” the agency warned. Those unfortunate enough to get stuck outside during the event should find shelter or build a snow cave and cover up. It’s also important to remember not to eat snow when thirsty, the weather service said, adding that doing so can lower body temperature to dangerous levels.

Six warming centers are available to the public when temperatures dip below 32 degrees. They are open from 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The full list of locations can be found on the city’s website.

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The storm will hit as holiday travel is expected to be busier than in years past.

Nearly 102 million Americans will drive to their holiday destinations this year, an increase of 2 million from last year, according to the American Automobile Association.

“Travel by car this year is on par with 2018, but shy of 2019, when 108 million Americans drove out of town for the holidays, the highest year on record,” the auto club said.

Illinois State Police said units would be patrolling the roadways with crews from the Department of Transportation, who will be responding throughout the weekend.

“Throughout Illinois, we are expecting periods of snow, rain, wind causing slick roadways and poor visibility,” the state police said. “We encourage everyone to stay at home if the roadways become too dangerous to travel upon. If you must travel please take it slow and increase your following distance.”

Air travel will see a 14% increase over last year, with nearly 7.2 million Americans expected to fly, AAA said. The auto club expects the number of people taking holiday flights this year will be close to matching 2019, when 7.3 million Americans traveled by air.

In Chicago, O’Hare and Midway airports are expected to handle about 2.9 million travelers between Wednesday and Jan. 2, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation.

O’Hare is expected to see a 4.7% increase in passengers from last year, with Thursday — when the storm will arrive — expected to be the busiest day of travel. Midway will see about a 26% increase in passengers from last year, the department said.

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