Hundreds of thousands of people were left without power in Quebec and Ontario ahead of Christmas Eve as a major winter storm barrelled into the region with heavy snowfall, rain and strong winds that led to flight cancellations and closed highways.
Friday’s storm was marked by a low pressure system across southern and eastern Ontario and parts of Quebec, followed by a dramatic drop in temperatures, Peter Kimbell, a meteorologist at Environment Canada, said in an interview.
“The concern is always when you have temperatures above zero and there’s rain or snow occurring, and then the temperatures plunge rapidly below zero, roads freeze, icy conditions develop and bad stuff happens on the roads,” Kimbell said.
Most of eastern Ontario got 10 centimetres of snow, while some parts of the region, like Pembroke, Ont., got up to 20 cm, he said. Ottawa received about 10 cm, while Quebec’s Laurentians and Gatineau Hills got between 20 cm and 30 cm.
In places like Windsor, Ont., where a blizzard warning was in effect Friday evening, Kimbell said the worst was likely over — though blowing snow was expected to continue. But in parts of Quebec, he said, the worse may be yet to come.
“The very southwestern part of Ontario, the worst is gone, but it’s going to continue to be nasty for some time, for another 12 hours or so. In places like the Eastern Townships of Quebec, no, the worst hasn’t even started yet. It’s about to start any time now,” he said late Friday afternoon.
The number of power outages across Quebec rose steadily for much of the day, with winds reaching 100 kilometres per hour in some parts of the province, snapping power lines and downing trees. By 5 p.m., the number of Hydro-Québec customers without power had declined slightly to around 340,000, including more than 80,000 customers in the Quebec City area.
Éric Filion, an executive vice-president at the utility, said he expected workers to restore power to most customers by Sunday evening. Hydro-Québec spokesman Maxence Huard-Lefebvre said about 1,000 workers were repairing power lines. The high winds and snow accumulation were making the work difficult and causing new outages, he said.
“It’s like a marathon,” Huard-Lefebvre said. “Sometimes it happens that we’ll have a few hours of gusts or a few hours of bad weather.
“In this case, the weather has been difficult since Thursday evening and will continue to be so for several more hours, so there will still be gusts of wind this evening, tonight and even tomorrow.”
The Quebec City area was the most affected part of the province, he said, “mainly because of the very violent wind gusts that were blowing since this morning — wind gusts at over 100 kilometres per hour.”
Hydro One, Ontario’s largest electricity utility, said roughly 56,000 customers in the province’s southern and eastern regions were without power on Friday. In Ottawa, the number of outages was declining, and around 4 p.m., about 4,200 Hydro Ottawa clients still had no electricity.
Ontario Provincial Police shut down a roughly 120-kilometre stretch of the busy Highway 401, from London to Tilbury, after reporting up to 100 vehicles had been involved in multiple collisions. Police also closed Highway 402 from London to Sarnia, citing multiple crashes.
“The wind and snow is blowing in and today is going to be a tough day for a lot of drivers,” said Sgt. Kerry Schmidt. “Please, if you don’t need to be on the roads, stay home, wait until the system passes, let the plows and salters do their job.”
The president of the Ontario Paramedic Association said ambulance services across the province were working at “full levels” on Friday. Darryl Wilton said slippery road conditions combined with closed and blocked roadways were making it difficult for paramedics to travel to calls, causing delays.
“Paramedics are often proceeding to one call and coming across other incidents like motor-vehicle collisions on their way there, where they’re (then) radioing in for additional resources,” he said.
Meanwhile, the storm upended holiday travel plans for thousands of people travelling to or leaving from Ontario and Quebec.
The Greater Toronto Airports Authority said nearly 39 per cent of all flights departing from the Pearson Airport Friday, and over 40 per cent of arriving flights, were cancelled because of the storm.
At Vancouver’s airport, Toronto resident Vanessa Romano was in an Air Canada queue trying to work out a way home for Christmas after flying from Singapore, where she is an exchange student. She said she received a notification during a layover in Hong Kong that the Vancouver-Toronto leg of her journey, scheduled for 8 a.m. Friday, had been cancelled.
She said she was looking forward to the first family get-together since the COVID-19 pandemic, but she said she hadn’t secured a seat. “Hopefully something works out and I will be able to go home in the next few days.”
Daniel Araya, who was travelling with his family from Chile to Vancouver, was stuck at the Toronto airport after his fight was delayed because of the weather. “We really are hoping for a Christmas miracle,” he said. “We spent a lot of time to get here and it will be really sad if we can’t make it to Vancouver to see my sister.”
In Montreal, Pauline Thieffry, an exchange student from Belgium who studies in Trois-Rivières, Que., said she worried her flight to Brussels — scheduled for Friday evening — would be cancelled. She said she hoped to make it home in time for a family dinner.
“I don’t want to cry at the airport,” she said.
—Sharif Hassan, Jordan Omstead and Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press