Winter storm disrupts flights, puts some holiday hopes on ice

Thousands of people descended on or were stranded at Chicago airports amid the onslaught of an ill-timed winter storm. In the city, meanwhile, high winds and plunging temperatures put homeless people at risk.

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Travelers check in to their flights prior to travel at O’hare International Airport, Thursday, December 22, 2022.

More than 500 flights were cancelled at O’Hare Airport on Thursday because of the winter storm. Nearly 3 million travelers are expected to cycle through the city’s airports over the next week.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Ellenburg family should have been in Iowa on Thursday, kicking off a long holiday weekend with family near Cedar Rapids.

Instead, they were among the thousands of people descending on or stranded at Chicago’s two airports by the onslaught of an ill-timed winter storm.

Tammy and Dennis Ellenburg of Portland, Oregon, were supposed to fly out Wednesday night, along with their youngest granddaughter, 4-year-old Angevelle Montgomery.

“They canceled the original flight last night and again this morning,” said Tammy Ellenburg, a grandmother to eight. She was holding Angevelle while her husband waited in line at O’Hare Airport to find another flight.

The family expected to pause in Chicago for just a little while on their way to Iowa.

Instead, “we had about six hours in the airport yesterday before leaving and again today. It’s been crazy,” she said.

Tammy Ellenburg and her granddaugther Angevelle Montgomery wait at O’Hare Airport on Thursday after their flight was  canceled.

Tammy Ellenburg and her granddaugther Angevelle Montgomery wait at O’Hare Airport on Thursday after their flight was canceled.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

It’s been quite a ride for Angevelle.

Several, in fact.

“She’s gotten to ride a train, an elevator, an escalator,” Tammy Ellenburg said. “She’s had quite an adventure.”

That wasn’t the word the National Weather Service used in issuing a winter weather warning for the Chicago area.

The worst conditions of the storm passed through Chicago around the Thursday evening commute, as 40 mph wind gusts from the west whipped the fresh snow around, creating low visibility, according to the weather service. Temperatures dropped 20 to 30 degrees within hours.

Buses were rerouted away from DuSable Lake Shore Drive on Thursday night because of the blowing conditions, the CTA said in an alert.

The powerful Arctic front dropped just over 1 inch of snow at O’Hare Airport and about 1.6 inches at Midway Airport by Thursday evening, according to the National Weather Service.

But the snow wasn’t the real danger. That will be the cold and wind that will persist through Saturday morning. The combination will create near-zero visibility in some places and possible white-out conditions in others, the weather service said. Frigid temperatures will make for slippery roadways.

The winter weather warning will remain in effect until 6 a.m. Saturday.

Light snow is expected to continue falling Friday, accumulation of less than half an inch was possible, the weather service said. Blustery conditions will persist with wind gusts as high as 45 mph, and temperatures are expected to climb to only 2 degrees during the day. Wind chills will make it feel as cold as 30 degrees below zero.

Winds are expected to ease slightly Saturday, with temperatures slowly moving into the teens Sunday. Travel conditions are expected to be treacherous through the weekend as the freeze lingers.

Those falling temperatures are of particular concern to those with no place to go.

Ahead of the storm, the city was deploying teams to reach out to people who are homeless and urge them to head to a city warming center or shelter.

A person brings supplies to people experiencing homelessness near West Wilson Avenue and North Simonds Drive as snow begins to fall, Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022.

A person brings supplies to homeless people near West Wilson Avenue and North Simonds Drive as snow begins to fall Thursday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The Night Ministry, a nonprofit that helps provide support for people in Chicago who are homeless, said it was patrolling the streets handing out winter gear, along with information on shelters — and a way to get there.

“We’re providing people with transit cards so they can get to a warming center or a shelter, as well as ride the CTA to find a warm place to stay,” said Burke Patten, who helps runs the nonprofit.

Night Ministry already also was handing out blankets and sleeping bags as well as talking to people about winter-related health challenges, such as frostbite and hypothermia.

Warming centers open

Information on the city’s 21 warming centers is available by dialing 311; visiting chicago.gov/fss; and using the CHI311 mobile app. The Department of Family and Support Services also provides warming centers at each of its senior centers in the city.

Though most city warming centers are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Garfield Community Service Center at 10 S. Kedzie Ave., is open 24 hours a day.

“We want to connect people to shelter,” said Joseph Dutra, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services. “So when it’s overnight, we want to make sure people have that shelter.”

Aside from the city’s warming centers, police stations, public libraries and Chicago Park District field houses are all good options to warm up, Dutra advised.

Chicago public libraries will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday.

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A worker clears snow from a sidewalk near East Ohio Street in the Gold Coast neighborhood.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“DFSS has also reached out to shelters that typically operate for 12 hours to remain open for 24 hours and provide services such as short-term stays, food, showers and warmth to clients,” a city official told the Sun-Times.

Cook County is also opening three 24-hour warming centers in the north, west and south suburbs: the Skokie Courthouse, 5600 Old Orchard Road; Maywood Courthouse, 1500 Maybrook Drive; and Markham Courthouse, 16501 S. Kedzie. They will operate until 8 a.m. Monday.

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Two people with luggage cross East Illinois Street at North Rush Street in the Gold Coast. Winds gusting as high as 50 mph could send wind chill values 25 to 35 degrees below zero.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Rich Guidice, executive director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, and other leaders also urged residents to check on their neighbors through the weekend, especially those who are older or who have disabilities.

“It’s critical for residents to be patient, take care of themselves and look out for each other,” Guidice said. “Staying connected is key to being safe.”

Well-being checks can also be requested at 311.

3 million travelers

Nearly 3 million travelers are expected to cycle through the city’s airports over the next week. The city’s Department of Aviation is urging passengers to check flight status with their airlines well ahead of time and to plan to arrive at O’Hare or Midway at least two hours ahead of time for domestic trips and three hours early for international trips.

As of 7 p.m. Thursday, more than 560 flights had been canceled at O’Hare Airport and about 259 at Midway Airport.

“I’m in a Christmas movie, and I don’t like it,” 21-year-old Olivia Carroll said after not only a canceled flight but a canceled train.

At Union Station on Thursday, where around 20 Amtrak trains have been canceled, Carroll said it had crossed her mind that something in her journey from Alaska to see family in Minnesota might go awry. It become reality when she touched down at O’Hare in the morning, checked her phone and saw her evening flight had been canceled.

“You never think it’ll happen to you,” she said.

The canceled flight came after Amtrak canceled the train she had originally planned to take. Now, she plans to take a train to Milwaukee and fly from there on Friday to Minneapolis, where her parents, brother, uncle and young cousin are waiting.

“He’s 5 years old, and I’m his favorite, so I’m excited,” she said.

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A sign warns of falling snow and ice outside the Wrigley Building on North Michigan Avenue.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Some travelers, knowing the storm was headed this way, altered their plans.

Carolina Panthers cap in hand, Austin Sweet was ready to escape Chicago’s first major snowstorm, and the first of his time in the city, to make it back to South Carolina with his family.

Austin Sweet was taking the Blue Line to O’Hare Airport on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022 to catch a flight ahead of the winter storm.

Austin Sweet was taking the Blue Line to O’Hare Airport to catch a flight to North Carolina on his way to see family in South Carolina. He changed his plans to leave town ahead of the storm.

Michael Loria/Sun-Times

The 23-year-old originally had a flight leaving O’Hare at 5 p.m. Friday — amid plunging temperatures and blustery conditions — but was able to switch it to 1 p.m. Thursday, just as snow was expected to start.

“I know it’s supposed to blizzard out and I wasn’t sure, so I switched it today,” Sweet said.

Travel plans also changed for 14-year-old Cesar Carroll.

His mom, Angie Ulrich, drove him in from Rockford — with her 4-month-old granddaughter in tow — to make sure Cesar could make his flight to see his brother in Arkansas.

“They don’t get to see each other too much, so it’s important that he makes it,” Ulrich said.

“I haven’t seen him in months,” Cesar added.

Cesar had been scheduled to depart Thursday evening, but Ulrich changed the flight to 1 p.m. so he wouldn’t miss it, sparing them a headache as that original flight was canceled late Thursday morning.

Angie Ulrich with her son, Cesar Carroll, drove in from Rockford to catch a flight they booked hoping to beat the storm out of O’Hare.

Angie Ulrich with her son, Cesar Carroll, drove in from Rockford to catch a flight they booked hoping to beat the storm out of O’Hare.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Not everyone at O’Hare was trying to depart, of course.

Katie Fassbinder said she and her husband, Peter, “made it home just in time.”

The Chicago couple was flying home from visiting family in Zurich, Switzerland, and spent four hours on the phone Wednesday trying to get on an earlier flight to land ahead of the storm.

“My husband is Swiss and works in risk management, so we planned for this,” Fassbinder said.

Despite the hassle, the 35-year-old said she wanted to make it back.

While serving in the Peace Corps, she noted, “I’ve missed six Christmases already,” so she was determined to make it home this time — for one person, in particular.

“My grandmother, she’s 89 years old and basically said that this would be her last Christmas.”

Contributing: Mitchell Armentrout

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People cross North Michigan Avenue at East Ontario Street in the Gold Coast. Snow and wind could create white-out conditions, the National Weather Service warned Thursday.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

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