TORONTO – A steady dose of freezing rain across much of Eastern Canada turned roads and sidewalks into skating rinks Sunday, cut power to hundreds of thousands of people, and played havoc with holiday plans at one of the busiest travel times of the year.
The situation drew comparisons to the deadly ice storm that encased Quebec in 1998, as hydro crews across the region struggled to restore service.
“Some of the crews I’ve spoken to said this is as bad,” said Blair Peberdy, vice-president of Toronto Hydro, which had 250,000 customers without power.
“It’s certainly a bad situation. These storms tend to wreak havoc and we have to go street by street with chainsaws.”
Anxious passengers found themselves stranded in airports from Toronto to St. John’s, N.L., days before Christmas.
Among them was Bradley Russell, on a break from work in Fort McMurray, Alta., who had been due to fly home Sunday to his wife and four-year-old son in Gander, N.L.
“I’ve got a little boy, he wants me home, so I need to get home,” said Russell as he searched frantically for an alternative flight at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.
“God knows, if weather comes in again, we might not get home probably until the new year.”
Travellers in Ottawa, Montreal, Fredericton, Saint John, N.B., Halifax and St. John’s all faced flight delays and cancellations.
Via Rail warned commuters to expect delays on its routes between Toronto and Montreal or Ottawa and police warned people to stay off the roads if possible.
Salting and sanding crews worked through the night Saturday and into Sunday in an uphill battle against a dangerous mix of snow, ice pellets and freezing rain that stretched from Niagara Falls, Ont., to the Atlantic Coast.
The weather conditions, which saw people skating down streets in Kingston, Ont., were suspected to have played a role in three fatal highway crashes in Quebec and another in Ontario on the weekend.
Marie-Eve Giguere, a meteorologist with Environment Canada, said parts of southern Ontario were especially hard hit by two storms over a three day period.
“They’ve been reporting freezing rain since Friday as we had a first, smaller system that left smaller amounts,” Giguere said.
Hydro Quebec said almost 49,000 customers were without power, mainly in the Estrie and Monteregie regions, while another 1,200 customers in Montreal found themselves in the dark. NB Power reported 4,000 customers without electricity in St. Stephen and Rothesay, N.B.
Sherbrooke, located in the Eastern Townships, one of the hardest hit parts of the province, suspended all public transportation services.
Peberdy said crews would be working 10- to 12-hour shifts to repair the damage, but were focusing initially on getting power back to two hospitals and an east-end water-treatment plant.
“We don’t want the water systems in Toronto to go down, and that’s why we’re focusing on that,” Peberdy said.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford called it one of the worst storms in the city’s history.
“My house is freezing cold, I have little kids, we might have to go to a hotel tonight, I’m not quite sure what we’re going to do,” Ford said. “It’s not good to wake up and have a freezing cold shower.”
So far, however, the storm of 2013 appeared to fall well short of the havoc wreaked in January 1998 when more than two dozen people died.
At its height, almost 10 per cent of the country’s population — about three million people — were without power when four days of intermittent freezing rain entombed parts of eastern Ontario, New Brunswick and western Quebec.
The Canadian Forces deployed 14,000 troops to help with the devastation and damage at the time was pegged at more than $1 billion.
By Sunday afternoon, the storm had moved eastward but freezing rain was only expected to stop falling on the Maritimes late in the day, Environment Canada said.
Overall, power outages affected about 350,000 customers in Ontario, as ice-coated tree branches snapped and brought down power lines.
Toronto shut down streetcar service along with parts of the subway system, while regional commuter trains were delayed or suspended.
At Pearson, hopeful travellers snaked around check-in stands or stared forlornly at flight boards flashing delays or cancellations. Others passed the time hunched over smartphones and tablets.
Matthew Shields spent Saturday night in Toronto after his flight from Saint Jean, N.B., to his mother’s home in London, Ont., was cancelled. Facing a 30-hour delay, he was trying Sunday to find a flight to Sarnia, Ont., instead.
“The past two Christmases I elected to not travel, and in hindsight that was probably a good decision,” Shields said.
“We can’t control the weather. There’s a lot of people trying to get to a lot of places.”
— With files from Will Campbell and Alex Posadzki in Toronto, Ben Shingler in Montreal