Updated 2/2/11 11:45 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – City officials on Wednesday defended the decision not to close Lake Shore Drive sooner than they did on Tuesday night, when about 900 cars became stranded in whiteout conditions along the roadway.
Raymond Orozco, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s chief of staff, said it was his decision to keep Lake Shore Drive open as the blizzard rolled in during the Tuesday evening rush hour. It was shut down at 8 p.m. after a series of accidents left hundreds of cars stuck in heavy snow.
“I believe it was the right decision,” he said.
“We understand the frustration many motorists felt. We thank them for their patience and we apologize for any inconvenience,” Orozco said Wednesday afternoon. “We are the city’s first responder community and we are ultimately responsible for this plan in ensuring the public safety of our residents.”
Orozco said that deciding whether or not to close Lake Shore Drive was a “judgment call,” but he said that, at the time, it was better to leave the Drive open to keep drivers from clogging interior city streets.
“Traffic we were monitoring was moving without incident. We should keep Lake Shore Drive open, giving the thousands of people who were trying to get home before the worst storm hits,” Orozco said. “The question was, do we eliminate Lake Shore Drive as an option, which would have required essentially diverting thousands of cars into the downtown and lakefront area … or do we keep close watch and monitor for dangerous situations while allowing the Drive to remain open.”
Orozco said forcing those cars onto other arterial streets would have created a greater risk of accidents on city streets and could have hampered fire and police emergencies in the city.
“In a storm of this magnitude, there is no way to predict from minute to minute what problems may arise, but what we know at this time is that no serious injuries or loss of life [occurred] based upon the option that I chose.” “What we believe is we obtained the best possible income.”
Lake Shore Drive remained closed Wednesday afternoon, as city workers continued removing stranded vehicles from the roadway in an effort to reopen the road as soon as possible. As of 6:45 p.m., 218 cars were still stuck there.
Lake Shore Drive was a disaster area overnight, as motorists found themselves stranded for up to 12 hours and ended up in the hospital.
As CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine reports, many motorists were just trying to get home by taking Lake Shore Drive Tuesday night, but the blizzard made that impossible.
Initially, Lake Shore Drive was moving smoothly as the evening rush began, but conditions began to deteriorate following several accidents. There were three accidents between Fullerton Parkway and Belmont Avenue 7:15 and 7:45 p.m., one of them involving a CTA bus. Shortly afterward, there were two more accidents in the northbound lanes just south of North Avenue.
The accidents caused cars and buses to back up, and as the snow piled up, vehicles became immobilized and off-ramps became impassable. Lake Shore Drive was closed at 7:58 p.m., and fire and police personnel worked to move as many cars as possible off the highway and remove people who could not get out on their own.
City officials said 700 to 900 cars were involved in the overnight traffic jam on Lake Shore Drive just south of North Avenue. In response, 13 ambulances were dispatched and remained on the scene all night, along with 26 fire companies with 130 firefighters.
Fire personnel were organized into two task forces with 30 firefighter-medics equipped on snowmobiles.
Police also dispatched 30 officers to the Drive, mayor’s chief of staff Raymond Orozco said.
Orozco said first responders tried to get to stranded motorists as quickly as possible, but winds of 60 to 70 mph and snow falling at a rate of 1 to 2 inches per hour made that extremely difficult.
Fire crews were unable to see even one car in front of them for a period of time, Fire Commissioner Bob Hoff said.
Before the city shut down the Drive, traffic had been crawling; it took upwards of an hour to travel only a mile. Many cars were without a full tank of gas, and ended up running out.
WBBM Newsradio 780 was flooded with calls from stranded motorists who said they had been stuck on Lake Shore Drive for over seven hours and saw people abandoning their cars.
Newsradio 780′s Lisa Fielding reports Sue Baker left her Hyde Park office around 5 p.m. and nearly seven hours later, she remained in the same spot, “We haven’t moved. It’s kinda scary. There are snow drifts on our cars now.”
Evanston attorney Craig Roeder says he got on Lake Shore Drive at 6 p.m. and headed north. He says he crept and crawled until just south of Fullerton Parkway, when traffic ground to a halt around 9:30 pm.
And there he sat, in whiteout conditions for six hours, until 3:20 a.m. when WBBM Newsradio 780’s David Roe was interviewing him on the phone.
LISTEN: Newsradio 780′s David Roe reports
“There are some emergency people now coming with flashlights between the cars,” Roeder said. “What we had been hearing is that they were taking people out into fire trucks because the buses couldn’t get through, so it looks like this could be our rescue here.”
Jim Glonke was stranded near North Avenue for 11 hours. He told CBS 2 he left his office in Chinatown in the late afternoon Tuesday, and it was backed up. He arrived at North Avenue around 7 p.m., and traffic stopped completely for an hour or two. Glonke was told a jackknifed bus was to blame.
Many cars ran out of gas, and were abandoned, as Glonke sat and exchanged text messages with his girlfriend, sister and mother.
“The next thing you know, it’s 4:15 in the morning, and I was one of the last cars to come off who actually had a few fumes left in his tank to get to the gas station,” Glonke said.
Another driver remained stranded on Lake Shore Drive at 5 a.m., and said he had been all but abandoned.
“We’re at North Avenue right now. It’s a standstill. They told us about an hour and a half ago that we’d be off the exit. There’s a car that ran out of gas, and that was about 1 o’clock and we’ve been sitting here ever since,” he said. “Nobody’s come by. Nobody’s told us anything.”
A CTA bus driver told CBS 2’s Vince Gerasole he had been stranded on Lake Shore Drive since 5:40 p.m. Tuesday. That was at 5:15 a.m. Wednesday.
There were only four or five minor injuries that required transport by ambulance, and none of them involved the effects of the snow, officials said. One was a firefighter who fell on the ice.
But the city ended up being sharply criticized for its response to the emergency on the Drive. On the one hand, they wanted to get people off the roadway, but on the other hand, they wanted them to remain in their cars so plows could attack the snow buildup.
The Fire Department set up a mobile command center along North Lake Shore Drive, and came to each vehicle to check on people with water and granola bars. Windshield wipers were left up for cars that were empty.
As for those who were rescued, many were taken to St. Joseph Hospital for cold exposure. Others were taken to warming centers or placed on warming buses.
St. Joseph Hospital reported that 185 people had been brought in from Lake Shore Drive. Most were cold, and merely needed dry socks, blankets, slippers and towels.
About 137 hospital employees are lodging at the medical facility.
Orozco said all the people who wanted to leave their cars were off the Drive by around 7 a.m. The plan is to reopen Lake Shore Drive when they believe it’s safe to do so, but it’s not known when that will be.
LISTEN: Newsradio 780′s Mike Krauser reports
“We know that hundreds do people were very inconvenienced, and we’re sorry about that,” Orozco said.
But he defended the decision to keep the Drive open as long as the city did.
“Was it a mistake to close Lake Shore Drive? The answer is no,” Orozco said. “We were monitoring Lake Shore Drive, and… there was heavy traffic on Lake Shore Drive, but traffic was moving.”
Orozco emphasized that the city was monitoring Lake Shore Drive from the beginning and responded as swiftly as possible.
“In 31 years with the city, I haven’t experienced anything like we did last night with Lake Shore Drive,” Orozco said.
Cars that were abandoned on Lake Shore Drive have been relocated to three lots, at Wilson Avenue, Belmont Avenue, and Chicago Avenue. Some cars have also been taken to lots at North Avenue and Wells Street, and 47th Street and Cornell Avenue.
Anyone looking for a car that was abandoned on Lake Shore Drive should call 311, Orozco said. A mobile fueling unit is also available.