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A white towel is placed over a downed powerline to alert passing vehicles after freezing rain in Toronto, Ontario December 22, 2013. Thousands of households are without power in the Greater Toronto area following an overnight ice storm.HYUNGWON KANG/Reuters

Toronto Hydro CEO Anthony Haines has deemed an ice storm that has left thousands of his customers without power as "catastrophic." He spoke with The Globe and Mail about the storm's impact.

What's the latest on how many are affected?

Our best estimate is that 250,000 are without power [that figure has gone up to 300,000]. That number hasn't changed much although the damage continues as we speak. The storm is not over. I was just out looking at the damage first hand [in Leaside] and trees were literally falling down around us … so we continue to get new outages [in some places], where the power was on an hour ago, it's not on now.

What's the prognosis?

I think we have to assume the worst. This is going to be days. Cities around are declaring state of emergencies. We're still assessing the degree of the damage. Right now what we're doing is responding to emergency calls. Police are sitting at intersections, our fire sitting at facilities that they're waiting for us to attend to make safe. Once everything is made safe, then we'll start restoring power.

Right now we've lost power to two hospitals [Sunnybrook and East York General, both on back up generators] and to the city's water pumping system [also on backup generator]. So for obvious reasons those are the most important priority for us and then we'll start in a systematic way to restore the "feeders" that have the greatest number of customers on them to bring the largest number of customers back as soon as we can. Then we'll be down to [individual homes cut off by downed power lines]. We're expecting those last ones to take days.

How does this compare to previous outages, like the storm last summer?

The flood [last summer] took out stations owned by Hydro One west of town. The numbers were about the same in terms of people affected but in this case, this is thousands of lines that are on the ground as opposed to two stations that got flooded, so it's a completely different event. I can tell you that I spoke to one of our employees that was out restoring power this morning, and he was a volunteer who had helped out in the last ice storm [in Kingston in 1998]. He said this is far worse. So we're seeing damage that is more substantial than the damage that was done then, within the city of Toronto.

Is there more you can expand on regarding the hospitals and the water-pumping system?

[The hospitals] have their own back up genrators.. Their own response systems have kicked in. Our priority is to bring them back on with permanent power and then move on to the next priorities.

We've lost power to three pumps at the Horgan facility [the F. J. Horgan Water Treatment Plant], so they have emergency generators and a water-backup system. We're working to get those feeders restored.

What part of the city is hardest hit?

The ice really came in through the central part of the city, along the 401 corridor, so if you take line through Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough – those are the worst-hit areas.

Places where you have a lot of trees and overhead lines are the most affected areas. The second thing you get is icing on our equipment ... So people have had poles burn down – and these transformers in the grey cans that hang off the top of the poles, they've shorted out because of the ice at the top. [In those cases], the can has to be completely replaced – so it's not just a question of cutting the branches back and picking up the lines that are laying down – we're going to have poles that ... need to go back up and equipment on those poles restored.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Warming centres

The city has opened community centres where those without power can get food and water, and stay warm.

Reception Centres in Toronto

  • Dennis R. Timbrell Resource Centre, 29 St. Denis Dr.
  • Malvern Community Centre, 30 Sewells Dr.
  • Agincourt Recreation Centre, 31 Glen Watford Dr.
  • Don Montgomery Community Centre, 2467 Eglinton Ave. E.
  • Northwrood Community Centre, 15 Clubhouse Ct.
  • Mitchell Field Community Centre, 89 Church Ave.
  • Joseph J. Piccininni Community Centre, 1369 St. Clair Ave. W.