Hundreds of thousands of people were left without power in Quebec and Ontario ahead of Christmas Eve as a major winter storm barelled into the region, bringing heavy snowfall, rain and strong winds that led to flight cancellations and closed highways.
The number of outages across Quebec rose steadily on Friday, with winds reaching 100 kilometres per hour in some parts of the province, snapping power lines and downing trees. More than 350,000 Hydro-Quebec customers without power by late afternoon, including more than 91,000 customers in the Quebec City area.
Maxence Huard-Lefebvre, a spokesman for the utility, said about 1,000 workers across the province were repairing power lines. The high winds and low visibility were making the work difficult, he said.
“It’s like a marathon,” Huard-Lefebvre said. “Sometimes it happens that we’ll have a few hours of gusts or a few hours of bad weather; in this case, the weather has been difficult since Thursday evening and will continue to be so for several more hours, so there will still be gusts of wind this evening, tonight and even tomorrow.”
The Quebec City area is the most affected part of the province, he said, “mainly because of the very violent wind gusts that were blowing since this morning — wind gusts at over 100 kilometres per hour,” he said.
Hydro One, Ontario’s largest electricity utility, said roughly 70,000 customers in the province’s southern and eastern regions were without power, with more than 30,000 not expected to have their power restored before 11 p.m. In Ottawa, the number of outages was declining, and around 2 p.m., about 8,600 Hydro Ottawa clients were without power, mainly because of branches that downed wires.
“We may only see one of these storms every five or 10 years,” said Environment Canada meteorologist Mitch Meredith about the breadth of the weather system. “I’ve only seen a couple of storms like this in the last 20 years.”
Environment Canada predicted winds up to 100 km/h in many parts of Ontario. Those gusts could be even higher in some areas around Lake Ontario, such as Niagara and Kingston, where the agency forecasted “crippling blizzard conditions.”
“The problem with that is the temperatures (are) going down way below zero right when we’re getting power outages. So, this is a dangerous situation for people,” Meredith said.
Winter storm warnings and travel advisories remained in effect in Southern Ontario Friday afternoon and were expected to continue into Saturday.
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In Quebec City, Environment Canada warned that with heavy snow, a storm surge could lead to flooding later on Friday.
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In Ontario, provincial police shut down a roughly 120-kilometre stretch of the busy Highway 401, from London to Tilbury, after reporting up to 100 vehicles had been involved in multiple collisions. Police also closed Highway 402 from London to Sarnia, citing multiple crashes.
“The wind and snow is blowing in and today is going to be a tough day for a lot of drivers,” said Sgt. Kerry Schmidt. “Please, if you don’t need to be on the roads, stay home, wait until the system passes, let the plows and salters do their job.”
Transport Quebec closed highways in several of the province’s regions, with Abitibi-Temiscamingue and the Quebec City area most affected. Two ferries operating on the St. Lawrence River had service suspended because of rough conditions on the water.
The storm upended holiday travel plans for thousands of people travelling to or leaving from Ontario and Quebec.
At Vancouver’s airport, Toronto resident Vanessa Romano was in an Air Canada queue trying to work out a way home for Christmas after flying from Singapore, where she is an exchange student. She said she received a notification during a layover in Hong Kong that the Vancouver-Toronto leg of her journey, scheduled for 8 a.m. Friday, had been cancelled.
She said she was looking forward to the first family get-together since the COVID-19 pandemic, but she said she hadn’t secured a seat. “Hopefully something works out and I will be able to go home in the next few days.”
Daniel Araya, who was travelling with his family from Chile to Vancouver, was stuck at the Toronto airport after his fight was delayed because of the weather. “We really are hoping for a Christmas miracle,” he said. “We spent a lot of time to get here and it will be really sad if we can’t make it to Vancouver to see my sister.”
In Montreal, Pauline Thieffry, an exchange student from Belgium who studies in Trois-Rivieres, Que., said she worried her flight to Brussels — scheduled for Friday evening — would be cancelled. She said she hoped to make it home in time for a family dinner.
“I don’t want to cry at the airport,” she said.
WestJet announced late Thursday it had cancelled flights at airports in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. The airline said 300 “proactive” flight cancellations Friday were due to the expected bad weather. Air Canada said Friday it had cancelled “a number of flights” in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, including all its flights out of Toronto’s downtown island airport, citing the storm, reduced airport capacity and operational constraints.
On the East Coast, 446 passengers on the Marine Atlantic ferry Blue Puttees, who were headed to Port aux Basques, N.L., were forced to return to North Sydney, N.S., after a malfunction prevented the boat from docking. Marine Atlantic said it didn’t want the vessel to be caught in the waters off Newfoundland when the storm started hitting the region.
In British Columbia, where extreme cold began to ease, two key bridges that handle the bulk of east-west traffic to and from Metro Vancouver were closed because of the risk of falling ice, while the weather office warned that freezing rain could lead to icy accumulations of five to 25 millimetres.
— With files from Beth Leighton in Vancouver