‘No lights, no heat. Nothing. Period’: Unprecedented snowstorm forces state of emergency in Manitoba
As an early season snow and windstorm hammered Manitoba over the weekend, Marlene Beardy’s pregnant granddaughter found herself stranded in Lake St. Martin, three hours north of Winnipeg, without heat or power and days away from giving birth.
“There was no heat, nothing at all. No lights, no heat. Nothing. Period,” said Beardy, an evacuee from the northern Manitoba community, who was waiting to check into a hotel in Winnipeg on Monday.
Beardy is preparing to spend the next two weeks in a Winnipeg hotel with her granddaughter — who made it safely to Winnipeg after initial challenges evacuating — and newborn great-grandson, who was born in Winnipeg at 7:38 a.m. on Monday.
Thousands of people have been evacuated from northern First Nations communities in Mantioba as Manitoba Hydro works to rebuild vast stretches of the power grid in the province, warning it could take four days to restore full power to Winnipeg and 10 days to restore power to hard hit parts of the province outside the city.
Evacuating the northern communities proved especially challenging because the storm, which blew into Manitoba on Thursday night, knocked down thousands of trees, power poles and power lines in the province, blocking roads in places and knocking out both power and, in some areas, cell phone towers and phone connections.
By Saturday, 53,000 households and businesses — including all 13,000 residents of Portage la Prairie — were without power. The power outage was so complete that officials in Portage la Prairie asked residents not to flush their toilets because the city’s water and sewage facilities were without power, and the city feared sewage backups.
As of Monday afternoon, 20,000 Manitoba Hydro customers were still without power including 800 customers in Winnipeg. Both the City of Winnipeg and the Province of Manitoba have declared states of emergency.
“We’ve just never seen anything like this before. It’s an absolutely unprecedented extreme weather even,” Winnipeg Mayor Brain Bowman told the National Post by phone Monday.
Bowman declared a state of emergency to give his crews of police, firefighters and forestry workers the ability to work on private property because, in many cases, trees had fallen from private residences onto public power lines.
The Canadian Red Cross opened a warming shelter at the RBC Convention Centre in downtown Winnipeg over the weekend for up to 11 First Nations, which it said was necessary because of the potential number of evacuees as well as a lack of available hotel rooms.
Margaret Missyabit, who evacuated the Lake Manitoba Reserve over the weekend with her son and was moving from one Winnipeg hotel to another on Monday afternoon, said the ordeal has been “really frustrating and hard for people that have children, people that are sick, people that are on disability.”
On the two-hour drive from Lake Manitoba Reserve to Winnipeg, she said she noticed that “every single power line was down.”
Before she left her house, power, heat and even her landline telephone were off line and she couldn’t get cell coverage, which made it difficult to evacuate the community. “How do you get the word out?” she said.
We’ve just never seen anything like this before. It’s an absolutely unprecedented extreme weather even
Crews, trucks and cranes from Saskatchewan Power Corp., Hydro One and Minnesota Power are currently on their way to assist Manitoba Hydro in getting power restored. The provincially owned utility currently has 500 personnel in the field working to bring things back to normal.
“The damage is on a scale never before seen in Manitoba,” Manitoba Hydro president and CEO Jay Grewal said in a release Monday.
She said the company has confirmed that 1,000 power poles were broken in the area between Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg. Another 1,000 power poles are broken around Portage la Prairie. The utility expects to find another 1,000 broken or damaged poles once the reconstruction effort gets fully underway.
“So much of the damage in the hardest hit areas aren’t simple repairs,” Grewal said. “We’re talking about having to rebuild miles of distribution lines, rebuild sections of our transmission network, including enormous steel towers.”
In the meantime, Manitoba Hydro is reminding residents without heat or power not to run electric generators or other equipment such as propane-fired heating lamps inside closed spaces for risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Bowman said the state of emergency has also mobilized offers of help from other cities, including Calgary and Toronto.
The winter storm was extremely powerful and also arrived while before leaves had fallen off trees in the province, so the “combination of rain, snow and wind” piled enough weight on trees and power poles to cause them to collapse, Bowman said.
“We lost power along with many Manitobans. We had a tree hit our roof and I’m assessing the damage this afternoon,” he said. “We are by no means anywhere near what many others have been through, so I consider myself pretty lucky.”
As the snow begins to melt, the province is preparing for flooding — which is still a low probability event, but the government is making sandbags available to residents in the Whiteshell Lake area, near the border with Ontario.
A Sunday release from the provincial government said that between 50 and 60 centimetres of precipitation fell in the southern and south-eastern parts of the province.