Snow cleanup could take days after wintry wallop buries Newfoundland

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – It could be days before Newfoundland’s capital city is unearthed after a brutal winter storm that brought St. John’s to a virtual standstill, knocked out power across the island and shut down its busiest airport.

Schools and government offices were closed Friday in St. John’s, which was among the areas hit hardest. The airport recorded wind gusts of more than 100 kilometres an hour and 48 centimetres of snow before it changed to freezing drizzle in the afternoon.

Snow continued to fall in the northwest Avalon Peninsula after it turned to rain in St. John’s, but Environment Canada said amounts wouldn’t approach the 80 centimetres originally predicted.

“This system did have a big punch, very strong winds with it and a good amount of snow,” Environment Canada meteorologist Herb Thoms said from Gander, which received 24 centimetres.

“Perhaps not quite as much as what we thought might happen, but certainly a good amount. … The eastern parts of the island were pretty well shut down due to the widespread blizzard conditions.”

Newfoundland Power reported outages in a large swath spreading from the Avalon Peninsula, the Burin Peninsula, Clarenville and Gander all the way to Corner Brook on the west coast.

In St. John’s, snow-clearing crews were given the maddening task of plowing streets only to have two-metre high drifts blow right back in as the powerful storm raged across the island.

Paul Mackey, the city’s director of Public Works and Parks, said it was one of the worst storms he’d seen in his 18-year career.

“It’s a good, old-fashioned, nasty winter blizzard,” he said at the height of the storm.

“It’s certainly a fairly extreme weather event for us. … We’re out plowing streets, but they’re filling in almost as quickly as we can plow them.”

Mackey said some 60 plow operators and other workers were trying to clear snow-packed streets, with the priority on major thoroughfares.

He estimated it would take 12 to 18 hours once the snow stopped falling to get streets plowed with at least a single lane, but a full cleanup could take days.

“The city is virtually at a standstill,” he said. “We’re encouraging people to stay off the street, in terms of vehicles.”

Eastern Health — the largest health authority in the province — said non-essential and elective services were cancelled for the day, though emergency rooms remained open.

The St. John’s International Airport was also closed as the city was blasted by high winds and steady snow. The airport reported wind gusts of 111 km/h, while the highest were recorded in Bonavista at 130 km/h.

Visibility at the airport was estimated to be about 400 metres.

Snow drifted through major intersections and against front doorways as scores of businesses and city offices also shut down for the day. Only a handful of coffee shops braved the storm and stayed open, said Mackey.

The storm also caused whiteout conditions and heavy drifting in southern parts of the province, prompting police to urge drivers to stay off the roads.

Thoms said winds would ease up and any remaining snow would turn to rain overnight as the slow-moving system moves further out to sea. Temperatures were expected to rise above the freezing mark Saturday.

“Hopefully people were clearing snow during the day before the drizzle moved in because once the rain gets on that snow, it makes it wet and very heavy,” said Thoms.

Mackey said most storm-hardened Newfoundlanders were taking the winter blast — and extra shovelling duties — in stride.

“It’s just as well to deal with it and have a smile on your face than to fight it and get upset,” he said. “Because you can’t really argue with Mother Nature when it dumps on us like this.”

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