By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago, a city that usually sneers at winter, was brought to a near standstill on Wednesday by a blizzard packing the third highest snowfall in the city's history.
Chicago public schools, which hadn't closed since 1999, were shut on Wednesday and will be closed again Thursday. Courts were closed. Five suburban commuter rail lines were down.
Lake Shore Drive, the city's main north-south thoroughfare, was closed and still littered with over 100 abandoned cars late Wednesday afternoon. Many side streets were impassable, and even plowed arterial streets and highways were eerily empty.
"This is pretty unbelievable," said John Paczesny, 48, a maintenance worker at a Chicago church. He was out with a snowblower clearing a path Wednesday morning, snow clinging to his mustache and eyebrows.
"I was around in '67 but this is really crazy," he said.
The highest snowfall on record in Chicago was in January 1967, with 23 inches, followed by January 1999 with 21.6 inches. The 2011 blizzard's total was 20.2 inches at O'Hare Airport, according to the National Weather Service. The blizzard is expected to be followed by bitter cold, with wind chill temperatures forecast to plunge to 20 to 30 below zero Wednesday night.
Paczesny, who is also a suburban firefighter, helped emergency workers deliver a baby in an ambulance Tuesday night -- a snow plow had to lead the ambulance to the hospital.
On northbound Lake Shore Drive Tuesday night, accidents involving a Chicago Transit Authority bus and other cars stopped traffic on the northbound lanes, stranding about 900 cars on their way home.
Rescue efforts were hampered by blowing snow and waist-high drifts. Some people were in their cars until early this morning, though no serious injuries were reported.
Some of those stranded complained that help did not come fast enough. Asked why the city did not close Lake Shore Drive in anticipation of the storm, Mayor Richard M. Daley's chief of staff, Ray Orozco, said it was necessary to allow commuters a way home to keep thousands of cars off city streets.
"I believe it was the right decision to make," Orozco said.
Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff who is the front-runner in the race to be the next Chicago mayor, criticized the city's response and said a "comprehensive review" was needed
"We need to get to the bottom of what happened last night on Lake Shore Drive -- with hundreds of passengers stranded for hours, it's clear that there were mistakes made that we can never let happen again," said Emanuel.
A picture on his campaign web site shows Emanuel helping to push a police car out of the snow. The election is February 22.
One man apparently walking along the lakefront drowned when he was either blown or fell into the lake, according to fire officials.
Some residents saw the snow as an opportunity. Gonzalo Mejia, 57, was out with two friends shoveling sidewalks for $40 a house. "There's crisis -- there's no jobs," Mejia said. "You've got to get out into the street and get some work."
The city's airports stayed open, but airlines canceled a total of 2,600 flights at O'Hare and Midway Wednesday, said city department of aviation spokeswoman Karen Pride.
Bruce Yeager, 44, an architect who planned to work from home Wednesday, was shoveling two-foot drifts off his sidewalk.
"The part that's going to be great is when it gets really cold and it (the snow) turns to rock," Yeager said, with a resigned grin.
Paczesny predicted the city would not be back to normal for two or three days, because of the difficulty of moving snow.
"You've got to have a place to put it," Paczesny said. "We already have seven to eight-foot piles in the parking lot."
(Editing by Jerry Norton and Greg McCune)