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Police investigate the scene where a woman was killed by flying debris near Keele Street and St. Clair Avenue during a storm in Toronto on Monday, October 29, 2012. Police believe it was the other side of the Staples sign that was found nearby.Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

A woman in her 50s has died after flying debris hit her on the head near Keele Street and St. Clair Avenue, according to Toronto EMS.

Toronto police Staff Sergeant Bruce Morrison said the woman was walking in a parking lot when part of a sign from a nearby business became loose because of the strong wind and fell. The woman was pronounced dead at the scene around 7:30 p.m.

Toronto started feeling the effects of Hurricane Sandy earlier on Monday, with winds in the Greater Toronto Area blowing at just over 60 kilometres per hour, according to Geoff Coulson, a warning preparedness meteorologist at Environment Canada. As the region braces for an overnight onslaught of heavy wind and rain, the City of Toronto is asking residents to remove loose items outdoors and be prepared for prolonged power outages, in what could be the worst storm in decades.

"We are expecting very strong winds – in some situations up to 90 kilometres an hour – and some heavy, heavy rainfall," Mayor Rob Ford said Monday afternoon at a hastily organized news conference.

Strong winds are being blamed for 6,000 power outages throughout Toronto as of 8:30 p.m. Monday.

Toronto Hydro spokeswoman Jennifer Link said the outages are spread out across the city, and that crews have to be deployed to individual homes to assess the damage and carry out repairs.

"Because of the large number of calls, several people could be without power overnight," said Ms. Link.

After midnight in downtown Toronto, fire crews responded to a blaze in a commercial building on Queen Street West, west of Peter Street. Michael Posner, a reporter for The Globe and Mail who lives about a block away from the scene, said the fire was preceded by a "huge explosion." More details were not immediately available.

Winds were beginning to pick up speed in the Greater Toronto Area with gusts of 75 kilometres per hour just before midnight. The strongest winds are being reported in Sarnia where they are blowing inland from Lake Huron at 85 kilometres per hour, said Mr. Coulson.

"The hurricane is close to making landfall on the New Jersey shoreline, and we are seeing, in many locations across Southern Ontario, wind gusts now picking up from the north," Mr. Coulson said.

Several bands of light rain connected to the storm had already hit the GTA by 7 p.m. The rain will be on and off  overnight and well into Tuesday. On Wednesday, the storm will taper off into more spotty wind-and-shower activity.

"It's very much a slow moving and long-lived system," Mr. Coulson said.

In some areas outside Toronto where the temperature is just a few degrees above the freezing point, the precipitation could turn into wet snow, but a significant accumulation is not expected. Mr. Coulson said that the biggest concern with this 'Superstorm' is the wind speed. By midnight, winds will likely reach 100 kilometres per hour in the GTA.

A wind warning is in effect for southwestern Ontario, including the GTA north to the Barrie area, along the north shore of Lake Ontario and all the way along the St. Lawrence valley from Kingston to Cornwall. The high winds could cause power outages and structural damage to buildings.

The storm is also expected to whip up the water, generating waves of up to seven metres in Lake Huron. The Quebec Storm Prediction Centre issued storm surge warnings for pounding waves in the Gaspe and north shore of the St. Lawrence River.

Emergency Management Ontario is warning it may result in flooding, road closures and power failure.

Mr. Ford, joined by city officials and a representative from Toronto Hydro, asked residents to take simple precautions in advance of the storm, which is expected to hit the area in earnest around midnight. They include securing and storing items such as garden furniture, garbage bins and Halloween decorations in advance of the storm and cleaning leaves out of catch basins to help prevent flooding.

The city has deployed extra crews to remove debris from sewer grates and streets in areas of the city that are prone to flooding, such as the Bayview extension and Hogg's Hollow and will bring in additional staff to respond to 311 calls this evening.

"I can assure you this city is ready for Hurricane Sandy," Mr. Ford said.

A spokesperson with the City of Toronto that more than 5,000 storm-related calls were received throughout the day Monday. Most of the calls were to complain about fallen trees and broken tree branches, she said.

City officials asked residents who have garbage collection on Tuesday to wait until 7 a.m. to put out their bins and to drive with care, especially in areas that experience flooding.

Toronto Hydro vice-president Blair Peberdy, said the high winds could lead to power outages for tens of thousands of customers and advised residents who lose power to be prepared for several hours of service interruption.

Mr. Peberdy advised customers who experience an outage to contact Toronto Hydro at 416-542-8000 and press 1. For emergencies, such as fallen live wires, residents are advised to call 911.

Officials at both Toronto's Catholic and public school boards were monitoring weather forecasts Monday to determine whether forecasted flooding might require them to close schools or cancel buses. Head caretakers at Toronto's Catholic school board spent the day inspecting schools, and preparing them for flood conditions by ensuring, for example, that drains and catch basins were clear of leaves. John Yan, a spokesperson for the board, said board officials would be checking conditions in the early hours of Tuesday morning, and making a decision by about 4:45 AM as to whether classes or buses would be cancelled.

A spokesperson for Toronto's public board said that the last time classes were cancelled it was due to a snowstorm, and if schools were to close Tuesday it would be the first time a hurricane has forced the board, which came into being in 1998, to take such measures.

City and TTC staff indicated that they will monitor the progress of the storm, but are planning for business as usual on Tuesday.

Although the city's subways, streetcars and commuter trains are still running, however Porter Airlines cancelled all flights out of Billy Bishop Airport from 3 p.m. Monday to noon Tuesday.

Toronto Pearson International Airport has issued a travel advisory to passengers warning that "a significant number of cancellations can be expected for flights within North America." Passengers are strongly advised to check their flight status before travelling to the airport.

With reports from Kate Hammer and The Canadian Press

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