TORONTO – A nasty ice storm that left hundreds of thousands without power in Ontario and Quebec tracked through the Maritimes on Monday as authorities worked frantically to clear tree-strewn roadways, restore downed hydro lines and get stranded travellers to their destinations.
Hydro companies in the Greater Toronto Area — which appeared to be the hardest hit by the weather system — warned some residents to brace for the possibility of being without power until Boxing Day or later.
Some neighbourhoods resembled crime scenes with yellow police tape used to cordon off areas where electric wires or large trees had come crashing down over the weekend. Sidewalks around some high rise buildings were also closed off due to the risk of falling ice.
Meanwhile, travellers trying to get home for the holidays continued to face delays and cancellations on airlines and trains.
Environment Canada said the storm had hit Eastern Canada hard.
“It was a mighty blow,” senior climatologist David Phillips told The Canadian Press. “It came at a really difficult time for people travelling and doing last minute shopping.”
The weather agency said the system had turned particularly vicious thanks to a combination of warm air from Texas colliding with cold air over Canada to create a drawn out period of freezing rain.
“We had freezing rain from south of London, all the way through to Ottawa and Montreal and southern Quebec and now today to central and southern new Brunswick, all of P.E.I. and most of Nova Scotia,” said Phillips.
“The geographical reach of this nasty, nasty storm is really affecting millions of Canadians in Eastern Canada.”
While the freezing rain was expected to peter out by Tuesday, Phillips warned that the ice it brought would remain as temperatures stayed below freezing.
“There’s no natural melting going on,” he said. “It’s going to be human effort and endeavour that will get rid of the sheath of ice that’s covering Eastern Canada.”
The situation meant utility companies working to restore power to thousands of homes had to deal with the possibility that ice-laden tree limbs could continue to splinter, snapping power lines.
Crews were working around the clock to get the lights back on in cities and towns across Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, but warned there was a possibility not everyone would be reconnected by Christmas Day.
Kelly Mathews was among those bracing for that scenario.
“I’m hosting Christmas this year, starting tomorrow all of my family is arriving,” said the Aurora, Ont., resident who lost power early on Sunday morning.
“I’ve been running everything down from my freezer and fridge to the garage to keep it cold. I had just done all of my food shopping.”
While Mathews hoped her power would be back on by Wednesday, she planned to move the holiday meal to her parents home in Thornhill, Ont. — where the lights are still on — if she remained in the dark.
Making such alternative arrangements was being encouraged by utility companies on Monday.
“The prudent thing now is to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” said Toronto Hydro CEO Anthony Haines, whose utility had some 195,000 customers without power Monday afternoon, down from more than 300,000 at the peak of the outage.
“At this point we simply don’t know the work that we have ahead of us, so it would be irresponsible for us to say ‘Well, by Christmas morning you will all be back.’”
Haines said there were some communities that crews hadn’t been able to get into yet as they triaged the power outage situation, prioritizing hospitals, water treatment plants and “feeders” which serviced thousands of customers.
He did suggest, however, that recovery efforts appeared to be turning a corner.
“I feel that we’re now winning the war, we’re able to restore more than is breaking behind us.”
The last people to get their lights back on will likely be those in homes in residential areas where crews are only able to restore power to one house at a time, said Haines.
Meanwhile, the mayor of Toronto emphasized Monday that Canada’s largest city was not in a state of emergency.
“If the weather and the winds picked up last night and it was worse, then we would have had to ask the province for some help,” said Rob Ford. “Obviously we’re not even close to that situation.”
Although Toronto Hydro had been operating under its own state of emergency due to widespread power outages Ford said he felt he had made the right call.
“Weather changes…it’s hard to predict,” he said. “And you don’t want to cry wolf.”
Elsewhere in Ontario, Power Stream, which serves Markham, Richmond Hill and Vaughan among other communities, reported 16,300 customers were still down.
Meanwhile, Hydro One— which serves 1.3 million customers in Ontario communities that include Guelph, Peterborough and Walkerton — said about 65,000 customers were still without power in smaller towns and rural areas. Some 160,000 were in the dark at the height of the storm.
Hydro One cancelled vacations for about 300 employees and had about 900 workers out trying to reconnect downed lines. It had also called in crews from other parts of Ontario.
“This is a massive effort. A great deal of work is going on around the clock. Employees are working 16 hour days in very dangerous conditions,” said Hydro One CEO Carmine Marcello.
“We’ve been able, given our provincial scope, to move crews from as far away as Thunder Bay and Sudbury in to help out.”
Marcello added that the situation remained precarious for work crews because of the heavy ice buildup on trees, with a plunge in temperatures coming Monday night.
The utility’s helicopters were unable to get into some regions because of low cloud and hadn’t yet assessed all the damage.
In Quebec, nearly 45,000 customers remained without power, largely in the province’s Eastern Townships as technicians worked to fix electricity lines and other equipment damaged by the storm.
An icy mix of rain and freezing rain played havoc with the electricity grid across the Maritimes on Monday as ice-laden trees fell on power lines, leaving tens of thousands in the dark in southern New Brunswick and northern Nova Scotia.
At one point, more than 44,000 residents and businesses were without power in southern New Brunswick. The hardest hit communities were Rothesay and St. Stephen, where more than 30,000 were dealing with outages by the early evening.
NB Power said the resulting ice build-up from the rain had brought a number of tree branches down onto electrical lines, complicating work to restore power, while slippery roads were making it difficult for trucks to even get to problem areas.
— With files from Michael MacDonald in Halifax