Updated: Travel delays aplenty as winter storm wallops Eastern Canada

MONTREAL – Authorities found themselves relying on snowmobiles and snowshoes to respond to some emergency calls as a historic hibernal blanket smothered a 1,200-kilometre stretch of Eastern Canada on Thursday.

The snowstorm squashed plans to travel by air and land.

There were hundreds of flights cancelled and rampant delays — first at airports around Toronto and then, as the storm barrelled eastward, in Ottawa, Montreal, Fredericton and Halifax.

Montreal was walloped with record-setting strength.

The city had expected a storm but nothing like the swirling tempest that forced Environment Canada to drastically revise its forecast over the course of the day.

At least 45 centimetres had fallen on Montreal by day’s end, and 50 centimetres on its south-shore suburb, eclipsing the previous one-day recorded high of 43 centimetres set in March 1971, according to Environment Canada.

There were scores of road accidents.

One involved a pileup of at least 15 vehicles on a highway east of Montreal, near St. Cuthbert. Quebec provincial police also said many vehicles had skidded into snowy ditches in different parts of the province.

Still, police there were counting their blessings late Thursday.

The same storm had killed at least 16 people in the United States this week. Montreal’s previous record blizzard in 1971 killed 17. But there was cause for optimism, as of Thursday evening, that Eastern Canada would be spared a similar human toll this time.

“There were no serious injuries,” police Sgt. Martine Asselin said, speaking Thursday evening of the numerous Quebec road accidents. “We’re lucky.”

Because of the multi-car pileup, a stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway was shut down near Montreal, with provincial police using snowmobiles to access the closed portion of Highway 40.

There were other examples of authorities resorting to rare, even rustic, solutions.

For example, Hydro-Quebec used some old-fashioned travel techniques to reach customers who had lost power in a previous storm, days earlier.

“We’re talking snowmobiles and snowshoes,” said Hydro-Quebec spokeswoman Sophie Lamoureux.

She said 99 per cent of the customers who had lost power last week had their service restored, with the exceptions being customers in hard-to-reach outlying areas. Meanwhile, new outages were being reported with Thursday’s storm.

In Laval, Que., next to Montreal, the bus service was shut down. Police vehicles there were being sent to the shop to help equip them for the fluffy obstacle course.

Several patrol cars in the suburb were outfitted with chains.

A police spokeswoman, however, sought to allay any public concerns about law enforcement being paralyzed.

“We’re not overflowing with 911 calls. People wisely listened to the warning to stay home,” said Nathalie Lorrain of the Laval police.

“It’s really (being done) in the goal of limiting emergencies. We ourselves are having a hard time getting around.”

The storm arrived in Canada after having already pounded the midsection of the U.S., dumping a record snowfall in Arkansas and lashing the Northeast with high winds, snow and sleet.

The weather, which was blamed for at least 16 deaths in the U.S., knocked out power to thousands of utility customers, primarily in Arkansas.

Hundreds of flights were cancelled or delayed out of U.S. airports and, on Thursday, numerous departures were also cancelled at Canadian airports.

In Montreal, over a span of several hours Thursday afternoon, a majority of flights were either subjected to lengthy delays or cancelled entirely. A similar pattern was repeated in different Canadian cities as the storm spread east.

Travellers were urged to call ahead to check on their flight status before heading to the airports.

Southern Ontario was spared the worst of the storm.

Toronto received about 10 centimetres of snow into Thursday morning while the Niagara region and Hamilton area received 15 to 20 centimetres.

Still, Ontario Provincial Police said they were busy responding to numerous reports of vehicle accidents from Windsor all the way to the Greater Toronto Area.

They said most calls had been for minor fender-benders and one-vehicle collisions, except for one potentially serious incident in London on Wednesday.

West Region Sgt. Dave Rektor said an officer had his parked police cruiser rear-ended on Highway 401 around 5:30 p.m. when he went to assist another motorist who had driven into a ditch.

The officer was not injured because he was out of the car at the time, but the cruiser was extensively damaged.

In New Brunswick, blowing snow began falling midday Thursday in the southwest and eastern regions, with about 25 centimetres or more expected.

Parts of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island also lay in the storm’s path, where winter storm watches or rainfall warnings had already been posted.

Environment Canada had said the Montreal region could receive up to 30 centimetres of snow accompanied by widespread blowing snow — but that was before the storm hit the area harder than expected. The tally was upgraded Thursday morning.

— With files from The Associated Press