Blinding blizzard

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Raging storm knocked out lights, took out trees, made roads treacherous

A pedestrian makes his way along Columbus Drive in St. John's at the height of Friday's storm.

The blizzard that rolled through the province Friday knocked the St. John's metro area to its knees for most of the day, and knocked the lights out for thousands of citizens.

Environment Canada reported snowfall accumulations of anywhere between 25 and 55 centimetres in eastern Newfoundland.

St. John's Mayor Dennis O'Keefe said that until noon Friday, city crews were focusing on keeping the main streets clear of snow, but the city has now shifted to mopping up and clearing snow in residential neighbourhoods.

By this morning, O'Keefe said, every street in the city should have had at least one cut by a plow, but it'll take a few days for everything to get back to normal.

The rain that followed the snowfall made it that much heavier, which is slowing down cleanup.

"I've seen a lot of storms in my time," O'Keefe said. "For the wind and the combination of snow, this is one of the worst."

For the most part, city residents seemed to heed official warnings and hunkered down to ride out the storm Thursday night and Friday morning.

By midday, after the worst of it had passed, snowblowers were fired up and people started to dig out.

On Park Avenue in Mount Pearl late Friday afternoon, Wayne Maher stood in waist-deep snow halfway up his 40-foot driveway, contemplating getting in the market for a snowblower.

He'd already been shovelling for 45 minutes and expected another three hours' labour, unless his neighbour appeared with his snowblower to help.

"I never saw anything like this before," Maher said, leaning briefly on his shovel.

Clogged streets

By then the streets of metro were starting to come to life as people cleared snow, got bored dogs out for walks, or just strolled around to see the blizzard fallout.

But it was too much activity for one passing RNC officer, who told The Telegram there were too many people on the still-slick roads.

Though visibility had vastly improved, plows were still trying to get roads cleared and to keep main thoroughfares clear for essential traffic.

With power on sporadically around metro, gas stations that had service were blocked. At the Esso on Commonwealth Avenue in Mount Pearl, the parking lot was lined with SUVs and pickup trucks waiting for a turn at the gas pumps.

Across the street at the Mount Pearl Ultramar, assistant manager Debbie Dawson and a co-worker had been on the job about an hour, once power was back.

There was a steady stream of gas customers, as well as people buying pre-packaged subs, chips, pop and beer.

"It's crazy here," Dawson said.

"Life-support stuff," quipped her co-worker.

Dawson tried to get a cab to work but couldn't reach a company that was working so she walked about 10 or 15 minutes over the snowbanks to work.

"It was OK as long as you watch where you're going," she said.

At the Canadian Tire gas bar on Merchant Drive in Mount Pearl, Brad Laundry was filling up several jerry cans and his pickup truck. It was pay-at-the-pump-only service.

Laundry had driven in from Conception Bay South, taking a chance after hearing there was select power in Paradise and Mount Pearl.

He'd tried three gas stations in C.B.S. with no luck.

"I knew there was no use trying others," he said, explaining that he needed the gas to keep his generator going.

But he shrugged off the storm, saying he's seen worse.

Cold beer on tap

In downtown St. John's, Derm Flynn was helping YellowBelly Brewery owner Craig Flynn clear the sidewalk in front of the microbrewery and restaurant.

"You can't let a little snow separate a fella from his beer," Derm Flynn called out.

Craig Flynn was hoping to have the power back soon, as it had gone off around 6:30 a.m. and the shelf life on his beer was 12 hours. He and the brewmaster had been keeping an eye on it and it was still good Friday afternoon.

Craig Flynn had closed the bar around 10 p.m. Thursday. He said conditions were too dirty out to keep staff at work.

"It was a ghost town," he said of George Street.

But he got on the go again 5:30 a.m. and went to the bar to check things out.

Craig Flynn commended City of St. John's crews for the job they were doing keeping routes as clear as possible and tackling the downtown and commercial areas.

Craig Flynn said calls by some residents early Friday morning asking for a state of emergency were misguided.

"That was absolutely overkill," he said.

But the bar owner had some concerns about basement flooding if the heavy snow began to melt with the expected rain.

Most shops and restaurants stayed shuttered for the day, and the Village Shopping Centre and Avalon Mall were no exception, with plans to reopen this morning.

Friday evening, however, with power starting to return, some fast-food locations joined YellowBelly in opening their doors.

Downtown scene

Hanna Callahan, a dog walker for Twister, was out getting a pooch some exercise downtown Friday afternoon.

She and her roommates, Sarah Elliot and boyfriend Brendan Cunningham, had no power at home so they hit the Tim Hortons on Harvey Road early Friday for breakfast.

Cunningham is originally from North Carolina, where an inch of snow can close everything down.

"I never saw anything like this. It's wonderful," he said, taking it in stride, though he hadn't told his family back home about the blizzard.

On Topsail Road and Cornwall Avenue, snowblowers were humming along.

Paul Drodge, an airplane mechanic, had already been through two belts Friday afternoon after starting snowblowing at 7 a.m., and expected to go through more before the chore was done.

"You need a brand new Honda for this," he said.

As of press time, it looked like things will be getting back to normal today.

St. John's International Airport will re-open at noon; it shut down Thursday evening in the face of the storm.

The IceCaps will hit the ice tonight for a game against the Toronto Marlies. They had to cancel their Friday night game, and so they'll be playing that one at 2 p.m. Sunday.

In the thick of the storm, the heavy snow and whiteout conditions put a strain on the health-care system.

Eastern Health's emergency rooms were busy Friday, but as of late afternoon there had been no major accidents or trauma events.

Incredibly, as of press time the RNC said they'd only had two traffic accidents reported since 3 p.m. Thursday.

The ERs have been busy for a couple of weeks due to influenza, said Katherine Chubbs, a vice-president and chief nursing officer with Eastern Health.

"They are pretty much at capacity," she said Friday.

All non-emergency services had been cancelled.

Chubbs commended the staff who had stayed on after their Thursday night shifts because their co-workers couldn't get to work.

"They are to be commended and there are many of them," she said.

"It is a challenging day."

Staff were being given periodic rest breaks.

The hospitals got through power outages affecting their areas on backup power.

Chubbs said ambulances were getting around fine and at the height of the storm they had city plow escorts.

Pleased with performance

St. John's Mayor Dennis O'Keefe said he was happy with how things had gone.

Apart from the power outages, he said there had been no major failures and was impressed at how quickly everyone was getting back on their feet.

"The city will be back up and running," O'Keefe said. "If a quarter of that had been in downtown Toronto, the city would have been paralyzed."

Cab companies around metro were slowly getting back on the road Friday afternoon.

At Cy's Taxi in Paradise, the stand had 10 cars that were snowed in, but the owner was trying to find a plow driver to clear the lot.

Tom Hollett, owner of Jiffy Cabs in St. John's, said late Friday it will take a day or so to get his entire fleet up and running as many drivers had to get their own driveways shovelled out to get to work.

At one point between Thursday and Friday, the fleet of 100 was down to one cab and the company was sending out four-wheel drives to rescue some drivers whose taxis got stuck.

"It was a wild night," he said.

Hollett said he expected most people to stay home Friday night, one of the busiest weeknights, typically, for cab companies.

But the 25-year veteran of the cab business said the blizzard wasn't the worst of the worst.

"It ranks, but I can remember another two or three that were just as bad," Hollett said.

- With files from Ashley Fitzpatrick, Dan MacEachern, Josh Pennell, Deana Stokes Sullivan and Glen Whiffen at The Telegram telegram@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Environment Canada, Esso, Canadian Tire Village Shopping Centre Tim Hortons Honda International Airport IceCaps Toronto Marlies

Geographic location: St. John's, Mount Pearl, Eastern Newfoundland Park Avenue Paradise Commonwealth Avenue C.B.S. George Street Eastern Health Harvey Road North Carolina Topsail Road Cornwall Avenue Toronto

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  • Reen Sheppard
    January 12, 2013 - 22:36

    This was nothing we Newfoundlanders can't handle. We didn't have to call in the Army ! We have had worst than this storm over the years .