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Snowfall makes for miserable driving conditions

Cleaning up Sprucewood Drive Lindenhurst. | Jim Newton/Sun-Times Media

Cleaning up on Sprucewood Drive in Lindenhurst. | Jim Newton/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 4, 2014 3:44AM

There wasn’t much time for New Year’s revelry for public works crews in Waukegan, where the plows headed out with the arrival of a stubborn, long-lasting snowstorm on Dec. 31 and continued to roll as the calendar turned to the second day of 2014.

“We were out at 3 in the afternoon on Tuesday,” Public Works Director Tom Hagerty said on Thursday, Jan. 2. “We ramped it up (Wednesday) morning, and by mid-morning, we were all hands on deck. As of this morning, it’s still all hands on deck.”

Snowfall totals from the New Year’s Eve-to-New Year’s Day storm exceeded 12 inches in Waukegan and multiple locations around Lake County, including a report of 18 inches from a National Weather Service spotter in Gurnee.

Through 9:25 a.m. Thursday, the weather service also reported 15.1 inches in Highwood, 13.7 in Mundelein and Buffalo Grove, 12.9 in Beach Park and 11.9 in Lake Villa.

But a band of lake-effect snow, fueled by northeast winds, resulted in a winter-storm warning for Lake County on Thursday that was expected to add to those totals, especially for shoreline communities. The weather service cautioned that afternoon snowfall could exceed 2 inches per hour in some sections of a band extending south through Lake County into Cook, DuPage and Will counties, along with Northwest Indiana.

Before the final numbers come in, this Dec. 31-Jan. 2 snow could rival a similar New Year’s storm that hit on Jan. 1-3 of 1999 and left 20 inches in Waukegan and 18 in Lake Villa. That ’99 snowfall reached 21.9 inches at O’Hare International Airport, ranking it second in the history of Chicago snowstorms.

The beleaguered roadways kept Lake County Sheriff’s Police busy throughout the storm. According to department spokesman Sgt. Ted Sittig, deputies responded to 30 disabled vehicles, 50 accidents and 72 vehicles in ditches between 6 p.m. on New Year’s Eve and 2 p.m. on Jan. 2.

Sittig added that no major injuries were reported in the accidents, though there were some individuals transported with minor injuries, primarily following collisions with roadside utility poles and other obstructions.

At Waukegan Regional Airport on Thursday, planes continued to fly as officials monitored a snowfall that never seemed to stop completely.

“We’re trying to keep up, and right now, the runways are open, and planes are coming and going. We haven’t had to shut down,” Airport Manager James Stanczak said around 11 a.m., when snowfall totals were around 14 inches,

“The trouble with this one here is that it’s hard to predict. It’ll stop and go and then stop and go. When you look at the radar, it looks like we’re on the cutting edge, but we’re still getting snow. You can never tell.”

Stanczak pointed out that the light, powdery snow was relatively easy to clear, unlike a wet snow that fell the weekend before Christmas and left an undercoating of ice, forcing the airport to temporarily shut down its runway.

Even some schools that were closed for the holiday week were forced to shut down activities or operations scheduled for Thursday. Among those closing their offices and canceling sports practices were Barrington School District 220, Grayslake High School District 127 and Rosalind Franklin University in North Chicago.

Libraries closing their doors on Thursday included Ela, Cook, Lake Forest, Vernon, Warren-Newport and Waukegan. The Antioch Public Library was among those opening up to three hours later than scheduled.

Snow plows in many areas of the county had shifted to clean-up mode by early afternoon, while eastern areas still experiencing some snow will take a while longer to wrap up, according to Kevin Kerrigan, director of maintenance with the Lake County Division of Transportation.

“We still have quite a few hours of clean-up to go,” said Kerrigan, adding that two alternating crews of LDOT workers had been plowing and salting for 48 straight hours as of Thursday afternoon.

“Even with two crews, they are still pretty tired right now. They work 12 hours and go home and clean up there and then try to get some rest,” he said.

All in all, things could have been worse — the prolonged snowfall came at a time when traffic was much lighter than usual.

“It was nice. Being the holidays, not so many people were on the roads,” Kerrigan said.

In Waukegan, Hagerty agreed that the storm’s silver lining was the fairly light traffic. He still advised motorists to be both cautious and patient during the lake-effect snow, saying “it’s futile to try to make (streets) bare pavement at this point with the on-off, on-off. We’d just burn a lot of salt.”

“We do the best we can,” Hagerty said. “We try to keep the streets clear, but with the snow the way it’s coming, they’re absolutely not going to be bare pavement. We’re not even trying to make them bare pavement at this point. People just have to realize that they’ve got to drive a bit slower when it’s like this.”

Though nature’s snow machine was set to power down late Thursday, the forecast offered another dose of winter’s reality for Friday morning, with temperatures expected to drop below zero in most parts of the county.

The return-to-school forecast isn’t much better, with the National Weather Service reporting that temperatures will again drop below zero on Sunday night and stay in that range through Wednesday morning. The predicted high temperature in Waukegan for Monday, Jan. 6, is minus-5 to minus-9, dropping as low as minus-20.

— Jim Newton | @JimNewton5 contributed to this report

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