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Midwest Winter Weather: Sloppy Commute After First Big Snowstorm

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Snow covers cars at an O'Hare International Airport parking lot in Chicago on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012. The season's first major snowstorm has forced airlines to cancel more than 500 flights at O'Hare and Midway airports. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Snow covers cars at an O'Hare International Airport parking lot in Chicago on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012. The season's first major snowstorm has forced airlines to cancel more than 500 flights at O'Hare and Midway airports. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Many Americans' first real taste of winter this season blew through the Midwest and Northeast on Friday, leaving ski resort operators giddy, delaying commuters and air passengers, and forcing pedestrians along the East Coast to button up against biting winds.

The storm blanketed the Upper Midwest before slowly swirling to points east. Snowplow drivers were out in force overnight in Chicago, where temperatures plummeted. It could drop as much of a foot of snow on parts of Ohio along Lake Erie before plodding on.

In a typical year, such a storm would hardly register in the region. But atmospheric patterns, including the Pacific phenomenon known as La Nina, have conspired to make this an unusually icy winter in Alaska and have kept it abnormally warm in parts of the lower 48 states accustomed to more snow.

In Buffalo, worse than the accumulation of 5 inches – moderate by regional standards – were 25- to 35-mph winds that blew the snow in blinding sheets.

"We go from no snow to a blizzard," said Courtney Taylor of Lewiston, north of Buffalo, holding on to keep her fur-lined hood up.

For Steve Longo, a 47-year-old chiropractor from Wauwatosa, Wis., the wait to try out the cross-country skis he got for Christmas was excruciating. He and a friend wasted no time hitting the trails at Lapham Peak, about 25 miles west of Milwaukee.

"I wasn't worried," Longo said. "I was just anxious."

The storm annoyed commuters, and authorities said it caused hundreds of traffic accidents and at least three road deaths – two in Iowa and one in Missouri. And while some lucky grade-schoolers cheered an unexpected day of sledding, hundreds of would-be air travelers had to scramble to come up with a Plan B.

High winds delayed flights Friday, as the long Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend began, heading to large East Coast airports including Philadelphia; Newark, N.J.; New York's LaGuardia; and Boston.

Blowing snow appeared to factor into a mishap at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, where the nose gear of a plane on a flight arriving from Atlanta rolled from the runway onto grass and got stuck. No one was injured.

While the dry weather has been an unexpected boon to many cash-strapped communities, which have saved big by not having to pay for plowing, salting and sanding their streets, it has hurt seasonable businesses that bank on the snow.

The arrival of blustery weather had Vermont's ski industry celebrating. The King Day weekend is one of the most important moneymaking weekends of the season.

The snow finally enabled the state's snowmobile organization, the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, to start opening some trails.

"We are absolutely giddy, stoked, and the phones are ringing off the hook," said Jen Butson, a spokeswoman for the Vermont Ski Areas Association. "It's what we've been hoping for. Our snow dances have paid off."

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Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Carla K. Johnson in Chicago, Carrie Antlfinger in Milwaukee and Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vt.

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Online: Associated Press winter storm interactive http://apne.ws/xKAREC

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