Major ice storm slams southern Ontario, at least 350,000 without power

A major ice storm swept through southern Ontario overnight and continues to cause hassles today, both to travel and to the province's power grids, as the freezing rain led to numerous traffic accidents, flight delays and cancellations and has left hundreds of thousands without power this morning.

The mix of rain, freezing rain and snow from Friday already gave southern Ontario a messy start to the weekend. However, the conditions became even worse late Saturday afternoon as the rain across the province changed over to freezing rain and ice began accumulating on every available outdoor surface. Roads quickly became slick and treacherous, and tree branches began gaining weight with alarming speed. Overnight, those heavy tree branches began crashing down to earth, causing widespread power outages as they took power lines down with them.

As of Sunday morning, Toronto Hydro reported that over 250,000 people have been left without power, and Hydro One reported over 100,000 customers were without power in other parts of the province. With the number of outages reported, it could be some time before workers can restore power. Toronto Hydro has given an estimate of at least 72 hours and hopes to have all power restored by Wednesday.

In Toronto, where warming centres were set up, Mayor Rob Ford called it one of the worst storms in the city's history.

"My house is freezing cold, I have little kids, we might have to go to a hotel tonight, I'm not quite sure what we're going to do," Ford said Sunday.

"It's not good to wake up and have a freezing cold shower."

Blair Peberdy, vice-president of Toronto Hydro, said crews would be working 10- to 12-hour shifts to repair the damage, but were focusing initially on getting power back to two hospitals and an east-end water-treatment plant.

"We don't want the water systems in Toronto to go down, and that's why we're focusing on that," Peberdy said.

According to Environment Canada, in addition to what's already fallen over southern Ontario, another 10-15 millimetres of freezing rain are expected throughout the day and freezing rain warnings have been issued throughout the affected areas.

A steady dose of freezing rain across much of Eastern Canada turned roads and sidewalks into skating rinks Sunday, according to The Canadian Press

Travellers in Ottawa, Montreal, Fredericton, Saint John, N.B., Halifax and St. John's all faced flight delays and cancellations. Via Rail warned commuters to expect delays on its routes between Toronto and Montreal or Ottawa and police warned people to stay off the roads if possible.

Hydro Quebec said almost 49,000 customers were without power, mainly in the Estrie and Monteregie regions, while another 1,200 customers in Montreal found themselves in the dark. NB Power reported 4,000 customers without electricity in St. Stephen and Rothesay, N.B.

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Of any major winter weather event, a prolonged period of freezing rain has the potential to be the most disruptive and destructive. Ice-covered roads and sidewalks can make venturing outside for any reason a potentially-dangerous situation, and can lead to accidents and falls, but that's just one concern.

Montreal in January 1998. The Canadian Press photoAnyone living in eastern Ontario or southern Quebec who's over the age of 20 can likely remember the infamous 1998 ice storm. Thick ice buildup over the week-long storm downed millions of trees and crumpled electrical towers, leaving around four million people without power at the peak of the storm. The office buildings of downtown Montreal shed massive chunks of ice that built up over the week, forcing police to cordon off the area until it was safe to return. Over two dozen people died during the storm, mostly from hypothermia. It took weeks and major reconstruction efforts after the storm to restore power to everyone affected.

The Canadian Forces deployed 14,000 troops to help with the devastation, and damage at the time was pegged at more than $1 billion.

The storm passing through this weekend isn't as bad as the one that hit in 1998, fortunately. That ice storm developed due to several different weather systems passing through in succession over eight days, delivering layer after layer of freezing rain buildup. This is just the second of two systems and what follows is a week of clear and cold weather. There will still be dangerous icy conditions for anyone venturing outside tonight and there will also be the danger of more power outages. Ice building up on tree branches can bring them down onto powerlines. Ice on powerlines themselves can also weigh them down enough to snap them from their poles.

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For anyone that needs to venture out today, authorities are advising caution and leaving extra time for the journey. Remember that some traffic lights are out due to the power outages and those intersections should be treated as four-way stops. Those with flights into or out of southern Ontario should check the status of their flight before they leave, as there are numerous delays and cancellations at airports across the affected regions.

A man walks down the street behind traffic lights with no power following an ice storm in Toronto, December 22, 2013. REUTERS/Mark Blinch (CANADA - Tags: ENVIRONMENT)
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Reuters | Photo By MARK BLINCH / REUTERS
Sun, 22 Dec, 2013 4:25 PM EST

With files from The Canadian Press

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