By Greg McCune
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Old Man Winter unleashed his first major storm of the season on the U.S. Midwest on Monday as a foot or more of snow, bitter Arctic cold and high winds caused transportation chaos, including at least two incidents of airplanes skidding off icy runways.
After several years of relatively mild winters, parts of the nation's heartland were facing blizzard conditions from the storm moving northeast across a swath of Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas through Iowa, parts of South Dakota, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota.
It was a nightmare for air travelers, with operations at some airports virtually grinding to a halt, especially at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, where scores of flight cancellations backed up air traffic around the nation.
JETS SKID OFF RUNWAYS
A Sun Country airlines Boeing 727 jet arriving from Minneapolis with about 60 people skidded into the mud at O'Hare early on Monday but there were no injuries or damage, the Chicago regional office of the Federal Aviation Authority said. The National Transportation Safety Board was investigating the incident.
In Kansas City, an airport spokesman reported the second incident in as many days of a Southwest Airlines jet skidding off a runway in icy conditions. The jet had 68 passengers and crew on board and skidded off the runway just after landing on Monday afternoon, spokesman Joe McBride said. No one was injured and passengers were loaded onto a bus and taken to the terminal.
That followed a similar incident on Sunday night, when another Southwest jet preparing to take off for Las Vegas with 27 passengers skidded off the runway in icy conditions. There were no injuries in that incident either.
The world's largest airline, United Airlines -- which has been plagued with delays and poor service this year even in good weather -- said it canceled some 75 percent of its flight departures from O'Hare.
"These conditions are simply horrendous for customers and employees alike," said Pete McDonald, vice president of operational services for the airline. "We're doing our best to operate but long delays and many cancellations are simply inevitable."
American Airlines said it had canceled about 80 percent of its flights to and from O'Hare. Northwest Airlines canceled all operations to and from Chicago for part of the day and had scrapped a number of Detroit flights.
Milwaukee-based Midwest Express said it had halted the majority of its flights and was trying to get just a few flights out of Milwaukee so that it would be in position to resume operations on Tuesday.
STORM SLOWS CHICAGO COMMUTE
Roads were snow-packed and treacherous throughout the Midwest, with Chicago-area commuters braving delays of two hours or more between the suburbs and the downtown business district. Trains were delayed and commuters leaving work early packed in like sardines on the way home.
Many schools, businesses and some government offices closed and planned to remain closed on Tuesday.
Some people in Chicago made the best of the situation. Schoolteacher Carol Summers traveled the two miles to work on cross country skis. Other people stayed home or left their vehicles parked and used public transportation instead.
Private investigator Chapin Ward, who lives in the Chicago suburb of Elgin, said he had not taken the train to downtown for 30 years but did so on Monday.
"With the traffic delays of two hours or more this is much better," he said as he bundled up to leave Chicago's largest train hub, Union Station.
The biggest snowfalls of more than a foot were in parts of Illinois and Indiana. Meteorologists said the situation was worsening to blizzard conditions in places because of high winds and a blast of cold Arctic air from the prairie provinces of Canada, where temperatures plunged as low as -33 Fahrenheit (-36 degrees Celsius) in southern Manitoba.
The combination of wind and cold was expected to take the wind chill index well below zero Fahrenheit in many places overnight.
Canada's largest airline, Air Canada, said the storm could cause delays and cancellations in flights to and from Pearson International Airport in Toronto, where substantial snow was forecast as the storm moved northeast.
The National Weather Service said the cold front could reach the mid-Atlantic region by Thursday although it could lose some its punch by then.
PREPARING FOR THE WORST
The city of Chicago was prepared for the worst, operating several warming centers for people who had no heat at home, according to Carmelo Vargas, deputy commissioner for emergency services. She said the city was relocating people who had no heat.
The frigid air chilled not only humans but farm animals as well. Prices for hogs were up in Iowa on Monday because farmers could not get their pigs to market. Cattle raised outside in pastures or in feedlots suffered from the blizzard conditions in the Midwest and Plains states, weather forecasters said.
Prices of natural gas rose in New York on Monday as traders said demand for heating fuel would rise with the cold weather.
For some natives of Chicago the storm was an ominous sign that this winter could be a rough one.
"We're due for a bad winter," said Reginald Thigpen, a ticket agent at Union train station. "We haven't had a really bad one in a while."
Snowfall in Chicago has been below average in four of the last five winters, according to Jim Angel, Illinois state climatologist in Champaign. "We've had several relatively mild winters ... I'd bet on more (snow) this year."
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