Hundreds of thousands still in the dark as ice storm moves east

TORONTO AND OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Damage from the storm in the Cabbagetown neighbourhood in Toronto, Dec. 23, 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

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Toronto Hydro restored power to about 75,000 homes overnight but about 225,000 remain without electricity as Southern Ontario recovers from an ice storm that has since moved on to Atlantic Canada.

In a news conference on Monday morning, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford said power is being restored to more homes every hour and is expected to be restored this afternoon to Sunnybrook hospital, the only hospital that is still running on generators. "We believe the worst weather is over."

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Anthony Haines, the CEO of Toronto Hydro, says crews had “good success” in the early hours of Monday morning, but is warning people to prepare for the worst. He said he could not provide a firm timeline as to when power will be fully restored.

“We are starting to make progress into the neighbourhoods and into the communities and restore power to those customers, but frankly we have a long way to go,” he told CTV News Channel earlier Monday. “Our crews continue to work around the clock in very, very dangerous and very, very trying conditions.”

A priority is to return power to Sunnybrook hospital.

“That is certainly a large challenge getting that hospital back on as most of the lines that feed into that hospital are laying down in a ravine in a creek bed and so our people have been working around that clock in that ravine trying to get that back up,” Mr. Haines said.

Toronto is not declaring a state of emergency, Mr. Ford said. "We are doing fine as is." Another news conference is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET.

The same weather system has coated other parts of Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes in ice, with tree branches felling power lines, fatal car accidents blamed on slippery roads, holiday meals thawing in freezers, subways and inter-city trains delayed and scores of flights cancelled.

Parts of Atlantic Canada are experiencing freezing rain and some power outages Monday morning. New Brunswick Power reports that nearly 8,000 customers are currently without power, with those outages evenly split between Rothesay and St. Stephen.

Ontario Hydro reports 116,809 customers were without power as of 8:15 a.m., a figure that is up slightly from earlier in the morning. The outages are largely across the southern part of the province stretching from the shore of Lake St. Clair in the West to areas along the St. Lawrence River near Kingston in the East of the province.

A spokesperson for Via Rail told the Globe and Mail Monday that the colder, dryer weather should allow for travel times to remain on schedule, though some minor delays might be possible.  Jacques Gagnon, a spokesperson for Via Rail, said Dec. 23 is typically the busiest travel day of the year.

Horizon Utilities, which serves the Hamilton and St. Catherines area, reported Monday morning that 3,000 customers remain without power, a figure that is down from as high as 30,000 on Sunday.

At least one municipality, the Ontario township of Woolwich, had declared a state of emergency as of Sunday evening.

“Christmas is just a few days away, and we’re doing everything possible to restore power and ensure safety,” Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said at a news conference Sunday afternoon, while thousands across the province endured outages.

The storm’s geographical impact is wide, stretching beyond the hardest-hit province of Ontario, where outages affected about 350,000 customers. At least 45,000 homes in Quebec were without electricity on Sunday. New Brunswick Power reported about 3,800 customers without power. Much of Nova Scotia was under a freezing rain warning. And Prince Edward Island residents were cautioned about snow and ice pellets.

Although the system is now moving east, conditions will continue to be treacherous as temperatures plummet behind the storm front, leaving the coating of ice on power lines, trees, roads and sidewalks intact. “This ice is not going anywhere,” said Marie-Eve Giguere, a warning preparedness meteorologist based at Environment Canada’s Downsview office in Toronto. “It’s staying with us.”

For some, the storm is reminiscent of the 1998 disaster that Environment Canada has dubbed the Ice Storm of the Century, when 35 lives were claimed, millions of trees were downed and some eastern Canadians were left without power for more than a month. An upside for Ontario during this storm: After the 1998 storm, Ontario’s Hydro One redesigned transmission towers with sharper angles to allow them to shed water quickly, ensuring ice does not build up. Ontario’s electrical utilities also stepped up tree pruning in the wake of that storm.

Another option is to bury power lines so they’re buffered from storm effects, but that would cost taxpayers more than stringing them in the open, Hydro One corporate affairs director Daffyd Roderick said. “There are trade-offs,” he said.

Ms. Wynne assured Ontarians that “all available resources” are being deployed to restore power as soon as possible, noting that she or office staff had been in touch with Mr. Kelly and several mayors across the province.

In an interview, Guelph Mayor Karen Farbridge said she is particularly concerned the wind will knock down more trees and power lines, while Prince Edward County’s mayor, Peter Mertens, said he didn’t expect power to resume until late Monday afternoon. In Belleville, Mayor Neil Ellis said his town had escaped the worst of the storm – just as it did in 1998 – and had sent its crews to more affected areas in the province’s southwest.

Two Toronto hospitals lost power and relied on backup generators, with one – the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre – transferring six babies from its neonatal intensive care unit to other hospitals as a precautionary measure. The Toronto District School Board announced all of its facilities will be shuttered Monday.

Beyond questions of safety, there were problems posed for holiday preparations, a quandary confronting Toronto suburban resident Samantha Dugas, as she mentally prepared for her first Christmas without a turkey. Ms. Dugas, who was in downtown Toronto at the Eaton Centre mall doing some last-minute shopping with her young son, did not know whether her grocer would have power, or if she would be able to store her pre-ordered bird. “We're quite concerned that we’re not going to have turkey for Christmas for the first time ever,” said Ms. Dugas. “We might have to do an artful vegetable medley … But it’s all about family so we’re going to make the best of it. We’d just have to laugh through the vegetables.”

With reports from Bill Curry, Ivan Semeniuk, Adrian Morrow, Arik Ligeti, Rhéal Séguin in Quebec City and The Canadian Press

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