‘A bad situation:’ Ice storm snarls travel and cuts power in Eastern Canada

A resident surveys the damage after power lines came down across the street in Toronto's east end on Sunday, December 22, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

A resident surveys the damage after power lines came down across the street in Toronto’s east end on Sunday, December 22, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press

TORONTO - A steady dose of freezing rain across parts 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.

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.”

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. The utility said by early Sunday evening it had 300,000 customers without power.

“These storms tend to wreak havoc and we have to go street by street with chainsaws.”

Hydro One, which serves much of rural Ontario, was reporting more than 120-thousand customers were affected.

Ontario’s premier said Sunday that she had talked to many mayors of communities affected by the storm to offer provincial support. She said the province was going to provide tree harvesters to some communities to help crews clear away downed trees.

”We’re going to bring in the resources that are needed to deal with the situation,” Kathleen Wynne told a news conference.

At least one municipality, the township of Woolwich near Waterloo, declared a state of emergency

“A factor in the Township’s decision to declare an emergency was because Waterloo North Hydro has estimated that power to parts of the Township may be out as long as 24 hours,” said a statement issued Sunday evening.

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.

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. One of its trains got stuck in Oshawa due to downed power lines.

“Thoughts are with those without power due to the ice storm,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper tweeted. “Please stay safe.”

The weather conditions, which saw people skating down streets in Kingston, Ont., were suspected to have played a role in four fatal highway crashes in Quebec and another in Ontario on the weekend.

At the height of the storm, Hydro Quebec said 51,000 customers were without power, mainly in the Estrie and Monteregie regions, while some 1,500 customers in Montreal found themselves in the dark.

Sherbrooke, located in the Eastern Townships, one of the hardest hit parts of the province, suspended all public transportation services.

The entire province of New Brunswick remained under a weather warning on Sunday afternoon, with heavy snow forecast for the north and freezing rain in the south.

NB Power reported nearly 3,000 customers without electricity, mostly in St. Stephen, N.B.

Much of Nova Scotia was under a freezing rain warning, while Prince Edward Island was under a warning of snow and ice pellets.

In Toronto, where warming centres were set up, 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 Sunday.

“It’s not good to wake up and have a freezing cold shower.”

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.

The Toronto District School Board said late Sunday that its facilities would be closed Monday. Classes are over for the Christmas break, but there are 300 child care centres that would be affected.

So far, the storm of 2013 appeared to fall well short of the havoc wreaked 16 years ago, when more than two dozen people died.

At one point in January 1998, 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.

Marie-Eve Giguere, a meteorologist with Environment Canada, said the 1998 storm involved far more freezing rain than over the past few days.

“The event we’ve been experiencing this weekend is similar in the sense that it lasted several days and it was caused by a few storms riding along the same track,” Giguere said.

“However, we haven’t had as much in terms of precipitation and accumulation of ice.”

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. The city’s giant Yorkdale Shopping Centre also lost power.

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 John, N.B., to his mother’s home in London, Ont., was cancelled. Facing a 30-hour delay, he was instead trying Sunday to find a flight to Sarnia, Ont.

“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, Benjamin Shingler in Montreal

© The Canadian Press, 2013

The Canadian Press