WATCH: (Dec. 22, 2013) The storm knocked out power to about 250-thousand customers in the greater Toronto area. The outages have spread throughout eastern Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. Mike Drolet reports.
TORONTO – A steady dose of freezing rain across the eastern half of Canada turned roads and sidewalks into skating rinks Sunday, cut power to hundreds of thousands of people, and played havoc with travellers’ plans at one of the busiest travel times of the year.
The situation drew comparisons with the deadly ice storm that encased Quebec in 1998 as hydro crews struggled to restore service across the region.
READ MORE: Looking back at the Ice Storm of 1998
“This is the real deal,” said Tanya Bruckmueller, spokeswoman for Toronto Hydro, which had 250,000 customers without power.
“Some of the crews that I was just with worked on the (1998) ice storm…and they are saying this is pretty much just as bad.”
Some customers might not have service back for three days, she said.
Airports from Toronto to St. John’s, N.L., filled with anxious passengers who found themselves stranded days before Christmas.
Among them was Bradley Russell, on a break from working in Fort McMurray, Alta., who had been due to fly home Sunday to his wife and four-year-old son in Gander, N.L.
Raw video: Toronto ice storm travel disruptions
“I’ve got a little boy, he wants me home, so I need to get home,” said Russell as he searched frantically for an alternative flight at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.
“God knows, if weather comes in again, we might not get home probably until the new year, if it backs up that much.”
Travellers in Ottawa, Montreal, Fredericton, Saint John, N.B., Halifax and St. John’s all faced major flight delays and cancellations.
Salting and sanding crews worked through the night Saturday and into Sunday in an uphill battle against a dangerous mix of snow, ice pellets and freezing rain that stretched from Niagara Falls, Ont., to the Atlantic Coast.
READ MORE: Toronto ice storm travel disruptions
Weather conditions, which saw people skating down streets in Kingston, Ont., are suspected to have played a role in three fatal highway crashes in Quebec and another in Ontario over the weekend.
Via Rail warned commuters to expect delays on its Toronto-Montreal and Toronto-Ottawa routes.
Marie-Eve Giguere, a meteorologist with Environment Canada, said parts of southern Ontario were especially hard hit by two storms over a three day period.
“They’ve been reporting freezing rain since Friday as we had a first, smaller system that left smaller amounts,” Giguere said.
Sherbrooke, located in the Eastern Townships, one of the hardest hit parts of the province, suspended all public transportation services.
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.
Police warned people to stay off the roads if possible.
So far, however, the storm of 2013 appeared to fall well short of the havoc wreaked in January 1998 when more than two dozen people died.
At its height, almost 10 per cent of the country’s population – about three million people – were without power when four days of intermittent freezing rain entombed parts of eastern Ontario, New Brunswick and western Quebec.
The Canadian Forces deployed 14,000 troops in Quebec and eastern Ontario to help with the devastation, which also touched the Maritimes, and damage was pegged at more than $1 billion.
By Sunday afternoon, the storm had moved eastward out of central Canada but the freezing rain was only expected to stop falling on the Maritimes late in the day, Environment Canada said.
Overall, power outages affected about 350,000 customers in Ontario, as ice-coated tree branches snapped and brought down power lines.
Toronto shut down streetcar service along with parts of the subway system, while regional commuter trains were delayed or suspended.
At Pearson, hopeful travellers snaked around the check-in stands as others stared forlornly at the flight board flashing delays or cancellations for a string of trips or passed the time hunched over their smartphones and tablets.
Another smaller crowd formed around a bank of telephones connecting to Air Canada, a possible lifeline for those looking to reschedule delayed or cancelled flights.
Matthew Shields spent Saturday night in Toronto after his flight from Saint Jean, N.B., to his mother’s home in London, Ont., was cancelled. Facing a 30-hour delay and taking the setback in stride, he was trying to find a flight to Sarnia, Ont., instead.
“The past two Christmases I elected to not travel, and in hindsight that was probably a good decision,” Shields said.
“We can’t control the weather. There’s a lot of people trying to get to a lot of places.”
– With files from Will Campbell in Toronto, Ben Shingler in Montreal
GALLERY: Fallen trees across the GTA from the ice storm