(MCT) — A winter storm warning has been issued for the Chicago metropolitan area, and the National Weather Service says winds up to 60 mph could whip snow into near blizzard conditions in some spots during the evening commute.
Rain is expected to turn to snow around 3 p.m. as temperatures drop and winds pick up, the weather service said. The heaviest snow will fall from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. with wind gusts of 50 to 60 mph. Three to 7 inches is expected in the far northwest suburbs, 2 to 4 inches in Chicago and 1 to 3 inches in the south and southwest suburbs.
But the weather service says the winds will be the real problem. "We may not get a whole lot of snow but the potential for snowing, drifting and poor visibility is very high," weather service meteorologist Mark Ratzer said.
In its storm warning, the weather service said the greatest chance of near white-out conditions is near the shoreline in Lake and Porter counties in Indiana. The storm warning is in effect from 3 p.m. until 3 a.m. Friday.
In western Illinois and Wisconsin, a blizzard warning is in effect with as much as a foot of snow forecast. Snow could fall 1 to 2 inches an hour around Rockford late in the afternoon, the weather service said.
To the south, a high wind advisory has been issued for Kankakee County. And in Indiana, a lakeshore flood warning is in effect for Lake and Porter counties.
The storm will end a record stretch of 290 days without snow in the Chicago area. This will also be the lastest that the city has seen its first measurable snowfall.
Delays and cancellations were already being reported at O'Hare International Airport. FlightStats, which collects data from the Federal Aviation Administration and airports, reported 142 cancellations and 131 delays at O'Hare.
United Airlines said it is waiving change fees for travelers scheduled to fly out of O'Hare on Thursday who want to change their plans.
ComEd said it was bracing for power outages because of the storm. The company said it was preparing additional crews and equipment and asking for help from other utilities to respond quickly to outages.
ComEd Vice President Terence Donnelly said the storm was "expected to be especially damaging" to the company's power system because of the combination of wind, snow and ice.
The approaching storm dropped nearly a foot of snow in Des Moines. The airport at Creston, Iowa, recorded the highest winds, with a gust of 53 mph.
On the southern edge of the storm system, high winds damaged homes and downed trees in central Arkansas, the weather service said. A powerful storm peeled the roofs off buildings and toppled trucks in Mobile, Ala., but injured no one. Tornado warnings remained in effect in parts of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama early Thursday.
Transportation officials shut down parts of Interstate 29 in Missouri early Thursday, and Interstate 80 in Nebraska remained closed due to blowing snow.