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First snowstorm of season fails to measure up

Published: Friday, Dec. 21, 2012 9:44 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — Chicago's first snowstorm of the season fell short of expectations, dumping far less than the 6 inches predicted for some areas and creating little of the havoc that hit the western part of the state and Wisconsin.

But it was still enough -- barely -- to end the record 290-day string of snowless days. The streak ended around 6:30 p.m. Thursday when a tenth of an inch of snow was recorded at O'Hare International Airport. Another tenth fell before midnight, according to the National Weather Service.

The heaviest accumulation in the Chicago area was 1.2 inches in Grayslake. In Chicago, three-tenths of an inch was recorded at Midway Airport. A few more flurries may fall today before the sky clears.

The forecast had called for up to 6 inches in the north and west suburbs and 2 to 4 inches in the city, with temperatures plunging and high winds kicking up near blizzard conditions. Transportation officials had urged motorists to stay off highways, and ComEd warned of substantial damage to its system.

But temperatures stayed above freezing during much of the storm, and the winds did not gust as strongly as predicted, according to the weather service. This morning, expressways were clear and travel times were close to normal. CTA and Metra trains were running on time. About 11,000 customers remain without power, down from a peak of 95,500.

And while 50 flights have been canceled at O'Hare and Midway airports as the storm moves east, that's a lot less than the nearly 500 that were scratched on Thursday. Delays on some flights today were running up to two hours.

“The biggest thing. . .was the fact that we were so warm ahead of this system and it took forever for us to cool off to the point it would turn to snow," said weather service meteorologist David Beachler, explaining the drastic turn of the storm. "The best dynamics. . .to produce heavy snow weakened substantially.

"Everything needed to be in its place," he added. "And we had all those things, but unfortunately it took a little longer for the temperatures to cool off to the point where those ingredients could come together. With the ground still really warm from all the rain yesterday, that tends to lessen the impact of the snow you’re going to accumulate."

Much of the Midwest wasn't so lucky. The storm has been blamed for deaths in at least five states, with parts of Iowa and Wisconsin hit with more than a foot of snow.

In Madison, Wis., more than 19 inches of snow fell, prompting the University of Wisconsin at Madison to cancel Thursday's finals.

A 120-mile stretch of Interstate 35 from Ames, Iowa, through Albert Lea, Minn. was closed. Iowa and Wisconsin activated National Guard troops to help rescue stranded drivers.

On the southern edge of the storm system, tornadoes destroyed several homes in Arkansas and peeled the roofs from buildings, toppled trucks and blew down oak trees and limbs in Alabama.

Back in Chicago, weather service meteorologist Gino Izzi said our mild winter so far has more records to break.

If Chicago makes it until Tuesday without an inch of snow falling at O’Hare – a real possibility – it will be 303 days since an inch was recorded there. That would be the second longest streak. The record is 313.

We've also seen second longest streak of days without a high temperature below freezing, the longest stretch since 1878.

“Eight more days and it’s the new record,” Izzi said. “We could cool down at the end of next week, so we may not break it but we’re going to come close.”

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