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Police block off a section of road after a tree branch broke off near a home in Ottawa during a major storm on Dec. 23.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Severe winter storms have walloped many regions of the country, wreaking havoc on travel plans two days before Christmas and causing road closures, flight cancellations and power outages.

Weather warnings from Environment Canada blanketed most of the country Friday, one of the busiest travel days during the holiday season, ranging from extreme cold temperatures in the Prairies to snowstorms and blizzards in British Columbia and Eastern Canada.

Rapidly falling temperatures in Ontario and Quebec on Friday morning led to icy conditions, with rain turning to snow and the potential for flash freezes. High winds resulted in blowing snow across the region and near-whiteout conditions on many major roads.

Ontario Provincial Police reported that more than 100 vehicles were involved in collisions on Highway 401 west of London. Highway 402 between Sarnia and London was completely closed in both directions Friday afternoon after a crash involving more than 50 vehicles.

Wind gusts reaching higher than 100 kilometres an hour caused power outages for roughly 349,000 customers in Quebec on Friday afternoon, according to data from Generac Power Systems. In Ontario, about 57,000 homes were without power, as the southwestern region was hit hard with high winds and heavy snow coming off Lake Erie. A flood warning was issued for communities along the shoreline of the lake, including Port Colborne and Fort Erie, and residents have been advised to pay close attention to water levels.

The winter blast also affected air travel as passengers hoped to head home for the holidays or embark on a vacation. About 38 per cent of scheduled flights out of Toronto’s Pearson Airport were cancelled as of 4 p.m. Friday, including all of WestJet’s flights, which were cancelled pro-actively late Thursday. WestJet also cancelled all 140 flights in and out of Hamilton, Ottawa, Waterloo and Montreal and another 104 in B.C. out of Vancouver, Abbotsford, Victoria and Nanaimo.

A steady stream of optimistic travellers continued to head to the Toronto airport Friday, even as rain turned to snow in the morning. A number of them milling around Terminal 1 before the security-check area said they remained hopeful their flights would eventually leave.

Austin Swinimer was taking his massive delays in stride. The forestry employee had been scheduled to get on a 6 a.m. flight Thursday from Edmonton to Toronto, then transfer onward to Halifax, where he has family. But he left Alberta six hours late and arrived long after his connection.

Early afternoon Friday found him in the terminal at Pearson, munching a cookie and waiting a bit skeptically for a promised flight at 7 p.m.

“As long as I get home for Christmas; that’d be nice,” he said. “I’m pretty laid back. It happens. A lot of people are trying to fly right now.”

Air travel in Alberta was also affected by the weather delays and cancellations in other provinces. A family of four was minutes away from boarding a plane at Calgary International Airport to Nanaimo, B.C., when their flight got cancelled early Friday morning.

Sitting next to luggage filled with Christmas gifts, Heather Bailey said it would have been the first trip in two years where her parents could watch their grandchildren open stockings because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

”It’s been two Christmases that we’ve been doing it by Zoom. So, the level of disappointment is just a little bit higher,” she said, though adding that they are trying to stay optimistic.

Challenging travel conditions are expected to continue in Southern Ontario overnight into Christmas Eve as a result of prolonged strong winds causing reduced visibility, Environment Canada meteorologist Gerald Cheng told The Globe and Mail on Friday.

On Friday, wind gusts hit 87 km/h at Billy Bishop Airport on the Toronto Islands and registered 119 km/h in Port Colborne, part of the region hit hard by the storm system off Lake Erie. The potential for damaging wind gusts in Southern Ontario and Quebec remains overnight, Mr. Cheng said, but the strong winds are expected to drop slightly to 70 km/h Saturday. The wind is supposed to taper off more by Christmas Day, but the chance of flurries remains.

“It’s going from bad to slightly less bad,” he said.

Along with the reduced visibility caused by the high winds, Mr. Cheng said the sudden temperature drop also created slick, icy conditions on snow-covered roads.

Temperatures in Toronto dropped from 4 C in the morning to -11 C by midday, with the high winds making it feel closer to -22.

Commuters in B.C., being pummelled by a second winter storm this week, may have challenges getting to and from Vancouver Island.

BC Ferries says it tried and failed Friday morning to get the required number of crew members to operate both the Queen of New Westminster and the Coastal Renaissance, which led the agency to cancel eight sailings between Metro Vancouver and Southern Vancouver Island that afternoon and evening.

The news brought a flood of customers trying to re-schedule trips, crashing the booking website for more than an hour and leading to wait times of more than two hours to speak to an agent.

Atlantic Canada was also bracing for a significant storm expected to bring heavy rain, strong winds and the risk of a storm surge along coastal areas overnight Friday and into Christmas Eve. The Confederation Bridge connecting Prince Edward Island with New Brunswick was shut down Friday evening.

In parts of PEI and southwestern Newfoundland and Labrador, where post-tropical storm Fiona caused a devastating storm surge along shorelines in September, people were told to expect winds in excess of 110 km/h.

“The storm surge will combine with large waves and pounding surf to produce significantly elevated water levels on Saturday, especially near the morning high tide,” Environment Canada wrote in its warning for the area. This “may cause damage along the coast.”

Wind warnings were also issued across Nova Scotia, PEI and New Brunswick. Rainfall warnings were in effect for Nova Scotia, where residents were told to expect widespread power outages.

With reports from Alanna Smith, Mike Hager and Greg Mercer

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