St. John's storm brings back memories of winter 2015 in Saint John

Most New Brunswickers likely watched what happened in Newfoundland and Labrador last month and said a little thank you to the weather gods that we were spared that storm.

The Jan. 17 blizzard brought as much as 90 centimetres of snow to some areas of the island, with winds up to 150 km/h.

For Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips, it was something to behold.

"Well, I mean, I was impressed. You know, I've been in the business for 50 years and that certainly was an event," he said. "I was surprised that the state of emergency was in effect for eight days, I mean that was quite something."

On the other hand, January in New Brunswick was about 2 C warmer than average, and some parts of the province only saw about 40 cm of snow for the entire month.

But, if our recent past is any indication, you may not want to count those chickens just yet.

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Just five years ago, on Feb. 4, 2015, Saint John declared its own state of emergency after four consecutive large storms hit in a period of eight days.

It didn't start out that way. Most of the first month of 2015 brought very little snow to the region.

That all changed on Jan. 27 when a nor'easter blew in with wind gusts between 85 and 117 km/h and heavy snow. 

By mid-afternoon, visibility was near zero in Saint John and buses and plows were pulled off the streets.

Heavy drifting made the 60 cm of snow that fell even more difficult to deal with.

The next day, police were still warning people not to travel unless it was necessary.

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Crews had barely started the cleanup when a second storm rolled in just three days later.

It was almost as powerful, dumping another 38 cm of snow with 80 km/h winds.

At the time, Kevin Rice, the commissioner of municipal operations, said crews were working 16-hour shifts just to keep streets open.

"All we can do right now is push back snow," he said. "To get into a full snow removal operation right now is not possible just for the sheer fact that we have a number of streets that we still have to push back snow on."

But Rice felt things were still under control.

"When you get into an emergency situation is when there's more streets that need to be cleared than we have the resources to do, in a timely manner, to provide emergency access. I don't think we're there yet," he said.

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They got there soon enough.

That evening, facing the arrival of two more storms in the coming days, city council declared a state of emergency in the city's south end.

The narrow streets of the uptown had reached the breaking point, with snow banks so large that plows couldn't navigate around parked cars to clear the snow. The declaration allowed the city to demand those parked cars be moved. 

Then-mayor Mel Norton said getting them out of the way allowed crews to do the work.

Matthew Bingley/CBC

"Every area of the south end had at least one swipe last night and so at least the streets are reopened to emergency vehicles and vehicles are able to get access," he said, "It's still tricky out there, though."

And it would stay tricky out there, with two more storms bringing another 67 cm.

The state of emergency would be in place for six days 

And February only got worse. In the end, from Jan. 27 to Feb. 25, Saint John received more than 280 cm of snow, setting a record for February that still stands. 

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In an average year, Saint John hauls away about 2,700 truckloads of snow from city streets. But in the first two weeks of February 2015, city crews had to move more than 17,000 truckloads of snow.

"It's a very costly exercise," said Rice.

It left the city facing a $2.8-million deficit in its snow removal budget.

For Phillips, what the city of Saint John experienced in 2015 may be tougher to endure than one big storm.

"What even can be worse is the parade of storms day after day. Four storms in 10 days can bring you to your knees," he said.

"For me the headshaker was by the first day of spring, March the 20th, there was still 170 cm of snow sitting on the ground in Saint John," he said.

Phillips said while we likely can't expect that result this year, be clear: winter isn't done with us yet.

"As they say, you may have the best falls in Canada, but you pay for it in the spring," he said. "Spring is always reluctant to arrive in the Maritimes."