CHICAGO — A fearsome storm spread a smothering shroud of white over nearly half the nation Wednesday, snarling transportation from Oklahoma to New England, burying parts of the Midwest under 2 feet of snow and laying down dangerously heavy ice in the Northeast that was too much for some buildings to bear.
Tens of millions of people stayed home. The hardy few who ventured out faced howling winds. Chicago's 20.2 inches of snow was the city's third-most on record. In New York's Central Park, the pathways resembled skating rinks.
The storm that resulted from two clashing air masses was, if not unprecedented, extraordinarily rare for its size and ferocious strength.
"A storm that produces a swath of 20-inch snow is really something we'd see once every 50 years — maybe," National Weather Service meteorologist Thomas Spriggs said.
Across the storm's path, lonely commuters struggled against drifts 3 and 4 feet deep in silent streets, some of which had not seen a plow's blade since the snow started a day earlier. Parkas and ski goggles normally reserved for the slopes became essential for getting to work.
Although skies were beginning to clear by mid-afternoon over much of the nation's midsection, the storm promised to leave a blast of bitter cold in its wake. Overnight temperatures in the upper Midwest were expected to fall to minus 5 to minus 20, with wind chills as low as minus 30.
Airport operations slowed to a crawl nationwide, and flight cancellations reached 13,000 for the week, making this system the most disruptive so far this winter. A massive post-Christmas blizzard led to about 10,000 cancellations.
In the winter-weary Northeast, thick ice collapsed several structures, including a gas station canopy on Long Island and an airplane hangar and garages near Boston. In at least two places, workers heard the structures beginning to crack and narrowly escaped.
Chicago public schools canceled classes for a second straight day. And the city's iconic Lake Shore Drive remained shut down, nearly a day after drivers abandoned hundreds of snowbound vehicles.
The famous freeway appeared as if rush hour had been stopped in time, with three lanes of cars cluttering the pavement amid snow drifts that stood as high as the windshields.