Thousands face evacuations as Manitoba calls state of emergency after snowstorm downs power lines

Thousands of people may be evacuated from First Nations communities as Manitoba reels from a snowstorm that left tens of thousands of people without power at a time — including the entire city of Portage la Prairie — and forced the province and capital city to declare states of emergencies.

Officials say it will take days to restore power in some of the areas hardest hit by an storm that snapped trees and hundreds of hydro poles. Thousands of people have gone without power since Friday.

"The damage is unprecedented in some areas," Jay Grewal, president and CEO of Manitoba Hydro, said in a media conference alongside Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister Sunday afternoon.

"In some areas, we have more lines and poles down than standing."

First Nations leaders are predicting around 5,000 people may need to be evacuated from communities without power, Indigenous Affairs Minister Eileen Clarke said.

The province declared a state of emergency early Sunday morning to give Manitoba Hydro the means to ask power utilities in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Minnesota for their help restoring services.

Ahmar Khan/CBC

Later in the day, the City of Winnipeg ordered a state of emergency itself to access the resources to recover from a storm it estimated would cost the city tens of millions of dollars.

The early-season snowstorm, which lasted around two days, brought heavy snow, freezing rain and strong winds to the southern parts of the province. The heavy precipitation fell on trees still laden with leaves, damaging transmission lines and towers.

Since Thursday when the storm began, power has been restored to 217,000 customers, Grewal said. There were 32,000 residences and businesses without power as of Sunday afternoon.

Pallister said he's encouraged that power was restored in the last 24 hours to around 20,000 customers, but "it's a difficult situation to monitor," he said. "We don't want to over-promise and under-deliver here."

Meanwhile, the federal government and Canadian Red Cross is supporting the evacuations of 16 First Nations communities, predominantly to Winnipeg, but also in Brandon and Dauphin.

Volunteers have been busy making an emergency shelter at the RBC Convention Centre in Winnipeg for as many as 1,000 evacuees. They would set up more cots if needed, spokesperson Jason Small said.

On the ground, Manitoba Hydro staff are working as long as 16 hours a day to fix a power network marred by a storm that was worse than expected, Grewal said.

Hydro has called other utilities to provide replacement towers, specialized electrical equipment and additional staff, she said.

"Yes, it is challenging to replace transmission towers. We are fortunate, though, that the utilities we're working with have equipment and we're already sourcing towers from our suppliers in Ontario," Grewal said.

"Really the challenge is the logistics to get that equipment to the locations we need, given the limited access due to weather on the roads."

Thousands evacuated

On Sunday afternoon, Pallister said 13 First Nations communities had no power and five had partial outages.

"Chiefs are also telling me their families, their people are scared, they're stressed," she said. "It's very difficult for the leadership and the First Nations to deal with this. They're struggling to make sure their people are safe."

Submitted by Erynn Moar

There are also problems involving telecommunications equipment, with 44 wireless and wired facilities down and an additional 86 sites using backup power, Pallister said.

Bell MTS said their staff have had limited access to their equipment because of unsafe conditions and highway closures, the telecommunications company said. Several thousands of their customers are dealing with service disruptions.

Pallister said that Manitoba Hydro would set up a temporary power line along the east side of Portage la Prairie to return some power to the city of 13,000 people, Pallister said. Mayor Irvine Ferris said 80 per cent of the city was in the dark as of Sunday afternoon.

He added that province has deployed around 200 pieces of heavy equipment, including private contractors, to clear roads and highways, but the progress has been slow because of drifting snow.

At the peak of the storm, roughly 2,700 kilometres of road were impenetrable, the premier said. He expects the majority of highways to reopen by the end of the day Sunday.

He said there's relief in sight, with no rain expected in the coming week and temperatures just above freezing.

Submitted by Manitoba Hydro

"This means gradual melting and will reduce overland flooding potential in some parts of the province where we have seen significant rainfall and snowfall," he said.

Pallister added that rivers are expected to stay within their banks and he encouraged Manitobans to avoid all unnecessary travel.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said in a statement his province is willing to help in whatever capacity.

"Ontario stands ready to provide any assistance that the people of Manitoba may need during this challenging time."