ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Vicious gales ripped through Newfoundland and Labrador Saturday, tipping over cars, downing power lines and damaging homes in the fiercest storm the province has seen in more than a decade, according to Environment Canada.
Hurricane-force winds prompted police to urged drivers to clear off the roads while emergency crews dealt with the damage. The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary issued a statement advising motorists to avoid "all non-emergency travel" until the blustery weather subsides.
Flights were grounded at St. John's International Airport, where winds gusted up to 158 km/hr, the equivalent of a Category 2 hurricane, according to Environment Canada. Meteorologist Wanda Batten said peak wind speeds in some areas broke records previously held by hurricane Igor in 2010.
"This is the strongest storm we've seen in more than a decade," Batten said Saturday. "It blew through three-quarters of the island today and it's still going."
Ferry crossings in the region were cancelled. The province's transportation department announced that several roads have been closed due to white-out conditions.
Newfoundland Power says widespread power outages affecting about 70,000 customers could last into the night as forceful gusts hampered efforts to restore power.
"Power restoration is hard to estimate while high winds continue to wreak havoc on our system," the utility tweeted Saturday. "Crews are at full capacity and responding when and where they can."
A playoff game at the Canadian men's curling championship at the Tim Hortons Brier in St. John's was delayed for over an hour Saturday afternoon due to a power failure. Irrepressible curling fans in the 6,000-seat curling arena made the most of the unexpected twist, waving their lit up phones as if they were at a concert and singing along to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline' during the 66-minute delay.
One resident, Troy Mitchell, said the streets were littered with shattered traffic lights when he drove past an overturned truck in Paradise, a suburb of St. John's. He said he did a "loop" around his home to check for damage every 30 minutes and his neighbours' homes were stripped of their sidings.
"We're pretty used to severe wind here, but this is something else," Mitchell said. "We can actually feel the house shudder."
Images on social media showed vehicles on their side and homes and buildings that appeared damaged.
Another resident in the provincial capital region, Dave Herder, said he has never seen winds so severe in St. John's. He said winds have damaged buildings downtown and cracked utility poles in half. A structure collapsed on a construction site, he said.
"The only constant is the wind," said Herder. "Things can change so quickly ... It's going to take a while to clean up."
Environment Canada issued wind and blizzard alerts throughout Newfoundland and parts of Labrador and warned of "near zero" visibility in blowing snow.
The city of St. John's was planning to open a warming centre on Sunday so people facing power outages would have a place to warm up and charge cell phones. A similar warming centre was opened at Conception Bay South outside the provincial capital Saturday evening.
Premier Dwight Ball's office issued a statement Saturday night that the storm was creating "potentially unsafe conditions in our communities" noting the high winds and downed power lines.
"I encourage residents to prepare for continued outages and stay safe until conditions improve,” Ball said in the statement.
The statement also urged municipalities to review their emergency management plans and check with insurance companies to fully understand policies and coverage in dealing with storm damage, the extent of which was not fully known.
By Adina Bresge in Halifax
The Canadian Press