MICHAEL TARM, Associated Press
CHICAGO (AP) " A massive storm billed as the worst in decades barreled toward the northeast Wednesday, leaving vast swaths from Chicago to New York paralyzed by snow and ice, leaving hundreds of motorists stranded all night and shuttering airports and schools.
Chicago received up to 17 inches of snow with more still possible, and Missouri as much as 1 1/2 feet. More than a foot dropped on northern Indiana and southeast Kansas, while Oklahoma saw as much as a foot.
In the Northeast, spots in northern New York had already gotten more than a foot of snow. New York City was expected to get up to three-quarters of an inch of ice by midday before the mix of sleet and freezing rain warms up to rain.
Forecasters warn that ice accumulations could knock down some tree limbs and power lines. Ice also could affect transit service, even as plow drivers struggled to keep up with the snow on many roads.
In New York, Mike Schumaker was already into his fourth hour of what he predicted would be a 24-hour plowing marathon as he cleared snow from a suburban Albany gas station around 5 a.m. Wednesday.
"I figure I'll be going to about 1 or 2 in the morning. That's my guess," said the 42-year-old private contractor from Latham.
"It's not so much about plowing as it is about to where to put it," he said. "We still have snow from Christmas that hasn't melted."
In Chicago, the city shut down Lake Shore Drive for the first time in years, and hundreds of motorists were stranded for 12 hours after multiple car accidents on the iconic roadway.
Raymond Orozco, chief of staff to Mayor Richard Daley, said crews' efforts to rescue motorists were "severely hampered" by snow drifts, high winds and white-out conditions.
Jenny Theroux, 23, told the Associated Press she was stranded from 4 p.m. Tuesday until about 4 a.m. Wednesday. Stranded just 800 feet from an exit, she repeatedly called the city for information.
"It was a very stressful experience toward the end, especially not knowing what's going on," Theroux said, after abandoning her car. "I'm just very confused as to why it all transpired this way."
More than 200,000 homes and businesses in Ohio began Wednesday without power, while in excess of 50,000 customers had no electricity in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which were hit with mostly freezing rain and ice.
Outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a crew preparing to clear ice from the city's sidewalks sat in their van warming up before sunrise Wednesday.
One complained that getting to work " even for him " had been treacherous.
"Walking was terrible," said Rob Jones, 20, of Cenova Snow & Ice Solutions "I slid all the way down my street."
Federal Emergency Management Agency director Craig Fugate said the agency is on standby with generators, food, water and other supplies to help state and local authorities.
"The real heroes are these local responders going out in the storms and still rescuing people," he told ABC's "Good Morning America."
In Chicago, public schools were closed for the first time in 12 years.
In Oklahoma, rescue crews and the National Guard searched overnight for any motorists who might be stranded along its major highways after whiteouts shut down Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
For those who insisted on braving the elements, the risks were many. "If you don't have enough fuel in your vehicle, you can run out, the heat goes out " and people can even freeze to death," said Greg Cohen, executive director of the Roadway Safety Foundation.
Cities across middle America shut down hours ahead of the snow. Scores of schools, colleges and government offices canceled activities or decided not to open at all. Thousands of flights were canceled across the nation.
The NFL did manage to stick to its Super Bowl schedule, holding media activities at Cowboys Stadium in suburban Arlington as planned, though the city's ice-covered streets were deserted.
Even Chicago " with its legions of snowplows and its usual confidence in the face of winter storms that would surely crush other cities " bent under the storm's weight.
"This is nothing to play with here," said Edward Butler, a lakefront doorman peering through his building's glass doors at snow blowing horizontally and in small cyclones down the street. "This is gale force wind."
The wind gusts were strong enough to start the building's heavy revolving door spinning by itself.
The management at Butler's building called in extra employees for the storm. They bought the staff dinner and offered to put them up for the night at a nearby hotel, but Butler planned to drive home no matter what.
"If you're a true Chicagoan, you don't back down from this kind of storm." But, he added, "if you don't respect it, you'll pay a price."
Many businesses in the city planned to remain shuttered Wednesday, as did cultural attractions and universities.
Some parents were glad the city took the rare step of closing schools in a city that is normally proud of shouldering the worst Mother Nature has to offer.
"They should cancel," said Sunjay Shah, 54, a sundries shop manager stranded at a downtown hotel overnight, saying his 17-year-old son was thrilled with the snow day. "How are students going to walk or take trains (to class)?"
Not only was driving in and around the city dicey, but flying in and out of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport " a major U.S. hub " won't be possible at all until Thursday.
The decision by O'Hare-based airlines to cancel all their flights for a day and a half was certain to have ripple effects at other U.S. airports, said transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman.
"Effectively shutting down America's most important aviation hub hits the system immeasurably hard," he said about O'Hare. He said other U.S. airports not even in the path of the storm should start to see delays themselves right away as a result.
The city's smaller airport, Midway International, hoped to resume flights Wednesday afternoon. Hundreds of flights were canceled at airports in Detroit, Milwaukee and Madison, Wis., and Tulsa, Okla.
Providing a ray of hope to those battered by the storm, the world's most famous weather forecaster " with four legs " predicted an early spring.
Punxsutawney Phil's handlers told Groundhog Day revelers at Gobbler's Knob, a tiny hill in Punxsutawney, Pa., that the groundhog had not seen his shadow, meaning winter will end within six weeks, according to tradition.
Associated Press writers Karen Hawkins, Don Babwin, Sophia Tareen, Tammy Webber and Barbara Rodriguez in Chicago; Tom Coyne in South Bend, Ind.; Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee; Ken Miller in Oklahoma City; Patrick Walters in Philadelphia; Chris Carola in Albany, N.Y.; Jim Salter in St. Louis; and Justin Juozapavicius in Tulsa, Okla., contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.