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Sandy giving Chicago a nudge

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012 8:59 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — The outer reaches of massive Hurricane Sandy now battering a swath of the Northeast are expected to wallop the Chicago region with high winds Tuesday, whipping Lake Michigan into a froth with record-breaking waves more than two stories tall.

With about 600 flights canceled at the city's airports Monday and the city's financial markets closed, Chicago officials warned residents to stay away from the lakefront Tuesday, when gale-force winds are expected to generate waves up to 25 feet tall.

"Stay off the lake, folks," said Gary Schenkel, executive director of Office of Emergency Management and Communications. "This could be a very dangerous situation."

But meteorologists don't expect the powerful storm to produce any rain here, limiting possible flooding to areas directly adjacent to Lake Michigan. City officials will monitor Lake Shore Drive, but there are no plans to close it. Forecasters predicted that crashing waves would only spray water up onto the commuter route, creating a traffic hazard at most.

"We're not really expecting two feet of water approaching buildings in downtown," said National Weather Service meteorologist Andrew Krein.

Chicago Park District officials said they have been securing beaches and plan to close the lakefront trail from North Avenue to Ohio Street starting Monday night. The CTA is prepared to reroute buses as necessary, depending on the waves, officials said.

The strong northerly winds, which could gust up to 60 mph, might cause headaches for travelers on east-west roads like Interstate 80 but are not expected to cause any major damage, forecasters said. Still, concerns over the winds led the Indiana Toll Road on Monday to ban vehicles carrying oversize loads until Tuesday afternoon.

In the Loop, some high-rise tenants received emails Monday warning them about the high winds and the possibility that their building could be closed. But some residents said they think the warnings were a bit dire.

"It's a little overboard," said attorney Richard Goldwasser, who works in the Fifth Third Center and jokingly compared the warning he received with those that emptied downtown before the relatively peaceful NATO summit last summer. "I think we should be fine tomorrow."

The winds, which might cause minor damage to trees or homes or break windows in downtown skyscrapers, should dissipate before trick-or-treaters take to the streets Wednesday night, forecasters said. At Navy Pier, outside attractions like the Ferris wheel will close but the indoor areas will remain open.

Most of the storm's dramatic action will happen out on Lake Michigan, where whitecap records set during the 2011 blizzard might be broken, forecasters said.

"This is going to be a sustained, long-term event with sustained northerly winds for 24 hours, whereas the previous storm was a low pressure system that … moved very quickly," Krein said.

Also enhancing the waves' height is the mix of warm water with much cooler winds, he said.

The forecast of powerful waves left those with boats still in the city's harbors — officials said about 400 remained — scrambling to secure them.

"In old sailing terms, they used to 'batten down the hatches,'" said Scott Stevenson, executive vice president for Westrec Marinas, which manages the harbors for the Chicago Park District. "We are doing the modern-day version of that."

Lines have been secured and docks and equipment checked. Crews are tying lines onto boats and checking to make sure all of them have been tied properly, Stevenson said. More than 20 boats were damaged in Monroe Harbor during a severe late-October storm last year, so the handful of boats remaining in that harbor were moved to DuSable Harbor.

At O'Hare International Airport on Monday morning, many travelers resigned themselves to being stuck midtrip, perhaps until Halloween. Some sprawled out on cushioned chairs, trying to rest. Others busied themselves on smartphones, attempting to arrange hotel accommodations.

Doug Austin, who was heading to Arizona for business Monday, arrived at O'Hare thinking his flight would be on time and unaffected by the hurricane churning out east.

Then he discovered his plane was flying here from the East Coast. His flight was canceled and rescheduled for Tuesday.

"I'm caught, and there's nothing I can do," Austin said, exhaling in exasperation.

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