CHICAGO — As if being stranded in a blizzard for 12 hours on Lake Shore Drive isn't bad enough, many of those hundreds of unlucky motorists haven't found much help locating their abandoned cars.
One woman relied not on the city, but a stranger she'd met during the ordeal who happened to know a tow truck driver. Another had to beg a private company to activate her car's satellite security system to do what the city couldn't or wouldn't tell her – that her car was parked in a North Side city lot.
While the city continued to dig out from the third-biggest blizzard in its history, those rescued after being trapped on the iconic drive that skirts Lake Michigan were either still searching Thursday for vehicles they were forced to leave behind, or telling stories about bureaucratic nightmares in finding them.
City officials said at a news briefing that locating one of the cars was as simple as clicking on the city's website and scrolling down for a license plate number and a location. Mayor Richard Daley himself reassured the motorists that they wouldn't be fined or charged a towing fee. But many said things were anything but that simple.
"Some people couldn't find them on a paper list, on the website or from 311 (city operators)," said Jarrod Leak, a North Side resident who found the car he left after eight hours on Lake Shore Drive parked in the second lot he looked Thursday morning. "I came out here and . . . we just got lucky."
Some motorists told of calling city operators for hours only to hear a busy signal, of being put on hold and then forgotten, or of having their calls disconnected.
And when they did get through – the city said 311 operators had fielded 2,700 calls in just one hour Thursday – those who answered couldn't pinpoint where people's cars were.
"The city said it would be at (lots on) Wilson, Belmont, North Avenue, Chicago Avenue, or on a side street near the lots," said Katy Otto, a 29-year-old teacher who said she got lucky because she spotted her car at the first lot – on Wilson Avenue – where she went to hunt for it.
That was more information from the city than Robin Fine got.
"They (311 operators) said it was taken to the closest ramp where your car was, (and) I said what does that mean? And they said it is on North Avenue and I said what does that mean? And they said it was in a commercial property and I said, what does that mean?" said Fine, 46.
It went like this for a while, she said, as both she and the operators got angry – she because she had no idea what "commercial property" meant and the operators, apparently, because the woman on the phone kept demanding specific information that they didn't have.
Fine did find her car Wednesday night after calling another man she knew whose car had been towed.
"He had a buddy who was one of the tow (truck) guys and he called him," she said. The driver told the man that the cars were taken to one lot, but when he got there he learned that lot was full and cars were taken to another lot, on Wilson Avenue on the city's far North Side.
"It was nothing that the city said (that helped him)," Fine said.
At one lot on the North Side, Tracy Kepler said she didn't get much information from the city, either.
After a call to the 311 operator got her no closer to finding her car, she called OnStar, which had installed the security system in her vehicle. Unfortunately, OnStar said the only way it would activate the system was if the car were stolen.
So, Kepler, 42, called the city again and again but was told nobody knew where her car was.
"We called (OnStar) back and said `Please help us,' and they did," she said.
Moments later, another woman walked by with a decidedly lower-tech device – the security alarm on her key chain, which she held up and clicked in hopes it would trigger a beep from her car. But she heard only the sound of her own footsteps before she headed for another lot to try the same thing there.
That led Kepler to the same lot as Leak. And when they arrived, they discovered that, at least at this one lot, finding their cars and driving off in their cars were two different things when the vehicles were lined up like canned sardines.
"There are 10 rows of cars behind us, we're three rows deep, and there's 12 rows of cars in front of us,' said Kepler. "They're doing the best they can to find tow trucks but there's no place to go."
Despite all that, the mood at the lots was upbeat.
"It's Chicago, it's a snow storm," said Kepler. "They did the best they could, they planned the best they could, they towed the cars for free."