The Great LSD Gridlock: Blizzard of 1979 redux?

February 2, 2011

 

The City of Chicago saw the arrival of one of the nastiest snowstorms in its long history on Tuesday.  But it also saw something else: Emergency services unequipped to deal with the volume of motorists and severity of conditions on Lake Shore Drive.

Not since the infamous Blizzard of 1979 has the city been so crippled by a storm - and city services so unable to cope with its impact on commuters.

Hundreds of cars and their drivers were stuck on Lake Shore Drive on Tuesday evening and well into the wee hours of Wednesday morning, most along the northbound portions of the Drive.

The problems began when a massive snowstorm arrived in the Chicago area just before rush hour, making travel treacherous and road conditions difficult.  But the situation intensified after 7 p.m., according to city officials.  That's when a series of cascading accidents blocked lanes and brought traffic to a standstill.

As a result, the City of Chicago closed Lake Shore Drive at 7:50p on Tuesday evening.  The closure shut down ramps in both directions, but it also left cars stuck on the Drive at the height of the blizzard, in many cases for hours.

Snowdrifts on Lake Shore Drive (Flickr/Tim Brown)

The gridlock on Lake Shore Drive recalled memories of the Blizzard of 1979, when traffic ground to a halt as snow piled up throughout city. Chicago's mayor at the time, Michael Bilandic, was heavily criticized for his response to the storm and for not having city crews better prepared to deal with its impact.

The snowstorm took place just weeks before the 1979 municipal elections.  Conventional wisdom holds that voters were so angry with Bilandic's handling of storm that they shoveled him out of office and voted Jane Byrne in.   

The Politics of Snow have never been the same since.  Just last month, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was blasted for his handing of a major storm that dumped on his city, prompting widespread media coverage and comparisons to Chicago.

Thus far, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley has been largely able to avoid such snowballing crises, real and political.  But last night's situation on Lake Shore Drive was different.  

City emergency officials say they closed the Drive so they could clear it of snow and accident scenes.   In addition, meteorologists were predicting 60 m.p.h. winds would generate waves off of Lake Michigan that could make the road surface icy and even more dangerous.  All of those concerns prompted the closure, according to the City of Chicago's Office of Emergency Management.  

By early Wednesday morning, the Mayor's Chief of Staff Raymond Orozco had publicly apologized for the inconvenience.  "While we wanted to get people quickly, we needed to get to them safely," he said.

But that was cold comfort to the hundreds of motorists stranded in their cars for hours.  Radio call-in shows, Facebook walls and Twitter feeds hummed with a mixture of confusion, anger and exasperation.  Many wondered what was taking so long.  Others wondered why the city didn't shut down Lake Shore Drive much earlier. 

Still others wondered whether the incidents on Tuesday night bode poorly for Chicago's next mayor.  After all, can he or she expect to be as powerful or as prepared as Mayor Daley has proven to be during 22 years of winter weather?

Good questions.  

It's long been taken as political gospel in the Windy City that "Job One" for any mayor is efficient snow removal.  For better or worse, it's the yardstick by which municipal effectiveness is measured.  

But the Blizzard of 2011 is also a reminder that even in Chicago, the most powerful figure in the city isn't the Mayor.  It's Mother Nature.

Photo credits: (Flickr/Tim Brown Architects)