By JASON KEYSER
CHICAGO (AP) — A powerful storm brought heavy snow and biting winds to parts of the Midwest on Wednesday, leading to mass flight cancellations at Chicago airports and school closings in several states.
The Chicago Department of Aviation said about 860 flights were canceled at O'Hare International Airport by Wednesday evening. About 310 flights at Midway International Airport have been canceled, with Southwest Airlines canceling all its remaining flights serving the airport around noon.
As the evening rush hour got underway, the National Weather Service warned the wet snow falling in Chicago, its southern suburbs and northwest Indiana could make travel very dangerous. The weather service said motorists should avoid the roadways if possible.
"The driving is terrible," said Dan Hale, a South Bend bus driver transporting residents of a downtown senior center on a shopping trip. "The plows have been out and they've been doing what they can, but you just have to be careful, take it easy. We can handle this."
Northern Indiana was expected to see the heaviest snow, as powerful winds blowing off Lake Michigan could keep snow piling up past midnight and bury the area in up to 18 inches. State Police said northbound lanes of Interstate 65 in northwestern Indiana were closed temporarily due to jackknifed semitrailers. Two counties in the area issued declarations permitting only emergency vehicles on the roads and warning violators could be ticketed.
In South Bend, in addition to slick roads and slushy sidewalks, the National Weather Service was reporting wind gusts of up 30 mph late Wednesday afternoon. But Kevin Koak, owner of the Saigon Market Oriental Food, was not impressed as he plowed his parking lot and cleared the sidewalk.
"The way they were talking about it, I thought it was going to be really bad. I mean, this is nothing," he said.
Before it was expected to it move east early Thursday, the storm was forecast to drop up to 15 inches in Valparaiso and Gary.
In Michigan, the winds were so strong, they caused the Saginaw River to swell and appear to flow backward, though it remained well below flood stage, The Bay City Times reported.
The winter weather warnings from the National Weather Service stretched southwest through all of Illinois and into Missouri, where several inches had fallen, leading to school closures and downed power lines. Blizzard warnings were posted for counties in eastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana.
Illinois State Police reported 229 crashes, vehicles in ditches, stranded motorists and calls for service between midnight and Wednesday evening. Classes were cancelled at Illinois State University in Normal and Eastern Illinois University in Charleston due to the weather.
Real estate agent Debora Auble had shoveled snow and salted sidewalks at three homes and her downtown office in Champaign, Illinois, by midmorning Wednesday. She wasn't exactly enjoying it.
"To be in and out of it is pretty brutal," she said as police cleaned up following what appeared to be a minor traffic accident outside her office. "And the roads are really treacherous. It's been a long time since I've seen the snow blowing that you can't see the traffic lights."
Just about every school was closed in Champaign. But students at the University of Illinois, which almost never closes, had to trudge through biting, wet snow.
Bands of heavy snow extending from St. Louis to Chicago caused several semis to jackknife and power lines to fall on Illinois highways. Winds left behind 3-foot-high snow drifts on one interstate. State police said travelling was "extremely dangerous" and urged people not to venture out unless they had an emergency.
Some schools in Michigan and Indiana cancelled classes.
"It's a good thing we closed," said Superintendent Tom Fletcher of the Twin Lakes School Corp. in Indiana. "Our roads are ice-covered and the wind's howling and the rain and the snow is coming down."
Michigan closed many state government offices, but kept its Emergency Operations Center open to manage the water crisis in the city of Flint and monitor the storm. The state kept open bottled water and filter distribution sites in Flint, which is under a state of emergency because of its lead-contaminated water supply.
Flint was expected to get 8 to 12 inches of snow, and officials urged residents to make sure they have enough filters, cartridges and bottled water on hand.
Drivers were warned that there could be no visibility at times on the state's roadways.
The winds sent high waves crashing into shorelines on both sides of Lake Michigan, with forecasters warning Chicago area residents to expect minor flooding and beach erosion.
Associated Press writers David Mercer in Champaign, Illinois, Tom Coyne in South Bend, Indiana, and Rick Callahan in Indianapolis contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2016 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)