Roadways are jammed, trains are stalled and police are reporting vehicles in ditches across the Chicago area in the early portion of what is expected to be a blizzard of historic proportions,
threatening to leave up to 2 feet of snow as it rolls across the Midwest with its sights on the Northeast.
Early risers this morning were facing 8-foot snow drifts in some places.
The National Weather Service reported 13 inches of snow in Schaumburg as of midnight, 12 inches in Glen Ellyn. The heaviest snowfall was expected now through 5 a.m.
Snow drifts reaching 5 feet were reported in Lake County by 8 p.m., and hundreds of cars are stranded on roadways that cannot be reached by emergency vehicles, according to Lake County sheriff's police.
The sheriff's office was frantically calling snowmobile clubs to lend their support to reach stranded pedestrians and bring them to warming stations, police said.
As of 8:30 p.m. high winds left 47,000 ComEd customers without power in the Chicago area: 26,700 of those in Chicago, 6,000 in the north region, 3,300 in the west region and 11,000 in the south region.
Whiteout conditions have been reported along with wind gusts reaching close to 60 mph.
A blizzard warning is in effect until 3 p.m. today, and some local governments have declared a state of emergency, giving city officials the power to "do what is necessary" to ensure safety.
"We may need to barricade streets and prohibit cars and pedestrian traffic in certain areas," said Elgin City Manager Sean Stegall.
Whiteout conditions have been reported in Lake County and thundersnow was reported in Northbrook as of 8 p.m. and later in Arlington Heights and Des Plaines.
Intense snowfall rates possibly exceeding 4 inches per hour are in the forecast, making travel nearly impossible, according to the National Weather Service.
"You won't be able to see across the street at times with snow blowing sideways during the height of the storm," said Edward Fenelon of the Chicago National Weather Service office.
Portions of Green Bay Road and Route 60 are completely shut down in Lake County, and Lake Shore Drive has been closed off in Chicago for most of the night.
Officials are urging drivers to stay off the roads at all costs. About half of all deaths in a blizzard are due to traffic accidents or people becoming stranded with their vehicle, according to the National Weather Service. Snow may become so blinding that snowplow operators have to be pulled off highways for their own safety.
Multiple Metra lines reported delays of more than 90 minutes, and others were completely stalled as blowing and drifting snow caused causing switch problems.
Cook County and areas closer to Lake Michigan and Indiana could get as much as 20 inches of snow in the end, with isolated spots hitting the 2-foot mark. Surrounding counties are expected to receive between 16 and 18 inches, according to forecasts.
Winds of 30 to 40 mph are expected to stir up Lake Michigan and produce waves reaching 20 feet, which forecasts fear will crash onto and flood Lake Shore Drive.
Over 1,300 flights were canceled at O'Hare International Airport Tuesday and all flights were canceled at Midway, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation.
Both airports continue to stay open, but most airlines have announced they will have limited or no flights through either airport on Wednesday.
Train lines faced potential snow-related slowdowns, too.
Lone locomotives were running back and forth all night into Wednesday morning on some Metra lines to ensure snow couldn't accumulate, potentially clogging tracks and rendering vital track switches inoperable.
In response to the storm, Gov. Pat Quinn has declared the state a weather disaster area.
If the forecasts for the Chicago area hold true, it would be the third-biggest snowstorm, overshadowed only by the 21.6 inches in 1999 and the mother of all Chicago snowstorms, the 23 inches of snow that fell in 1967.
For the first time in 12 years, Chicago closed its public schools. Many businesses planned to remain shuttered Wednesday, as did cultural attractions and universities.
Associated Press contributed to this story