An arborist cuts a tree branch dangling from a power line in Brampton, Ont., Monday, December 23, 2013. Hydro companies in the Greater Toronto Area � which appeared to be the hardest hit by the weather system � warned some residents to brace for the possibility of being without power until Boxing Day or later. J.P. Moczulski/Canadian Press
As Boxing Day drew to a close, there seemed no end in sight to the power outages that have left tens of thousands of Canadians with no electricity or warm place to call home for five days, although the number of households affected is slowly dropping.
Some 37,600 Torontonians remained without power early Friday morning, according to Toronto Hydro, adding 87 per cent of customers have had their power restored.
Emergency crews are continuing to work 24 hours a day until all customers have power again.
Toronto Hydro CEO Anthony Haines said the remaining customers without power might have to wait longer for it to be restored.
"We're reaching the point now where we expect to be, what I call, at hand-to-hand combat now, which is one truck helping one home," said Haines at a news conference Thursday morning at city hall.
"This last bit ... is going to be heavy lifting [and] at a much slower pace."
Toronto Hydro issued a statement early Thursday evening saying that "customers who are still without power should be prepared for restoration to continue through the weekend, as inclement weather triggers additional outages." The utility warned of a 12-minute wait time for anyone phoning into its call centre to report downed wires or outages.
There are predictions that winds of about 30 km/h will hit the Toronto area on Thursday night. That, coupled with new snow that has fallen in the Toronto region recently, means more outages are likely, Haines warned.
"Toronto's overhead distribution system from end to end would run across Canada twice," said Haines, explaining the enormity of the task that lay ahead of crews in the aftermath of the storm. "Just restoring those damaged overhead wires has been overwhelming, as you can imagine."
Those with power are asked to leave their porch light on so crews can quickly discern which homes have power.
The ice storm last weekend slammed into southern Ontario before moving east and causing havoc in the Maritimes, and in the northeastern U.S., leaving tens of thousands scrambling to find warmth and a place to spend Christmas on Wednesday.
Haines said Thursday that crews from Hamilton, Hydro One and Brockville would join other out-of-town crews, including Manitoba hydro workers, to bolster efforts.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said while the number of people in the province without power had dwindled, she indicated officials would "continue with the same urgency as we have been."
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford said 43 forestry crews were working in tandem with hydro crews around the city.
"Thankfully, we haven't had any serious injuries" directely related to the ice storm, said Ford at Thursday morning's update news conference. "There was a house fire last night ... No one passed away in that fire. We believe it was caused by candles."
The cleanup of all the tree branches that have either fallen or been removed, along with other debris, could take four to six weeks. Ford mentioned Scarborough was the hardest hit in the Toronto area, likely because it had more older trees than other parts of the city.
Vic Baniuk and his wife, who live in Toronto's east end, haven't had power for five days. In addition, there's a tree branch sticking through the roof of one of his bedrooms. Baniuk said Christmas celebrations are "on hold" in his house as they try to stay warm with a fireplace and a cast-iron stove.
"My house has underground cabling, so we have no wires coming down," Baniuk told CBC News in a phone interview Thursday afternoon. "The power came on in some parts of my street. The street lights in front of my house, which are attached to that section, are on."
Baniuk feels his house and few others are "stuck in pocket," and the street has not seen one crew member from Toronto Hydro, either.
"We're sitting in the dark and cold, and I feel that everybody has ignored us."
Toronto police have been going door-to-door to check on residents in apartment buildings where the power is out. Today, they moved 50 vulnerable residents, many of them senior citizens, to warming centres. The canvassing will continue this evening.
In other parts of the country, crews are still working to restore power in some areas of southern Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.
Hydro One, which serves 1.3 million customers in Ontario, reported about 12,000 blacked out customers late Thursday, down from 17,000 earlier in the day. The utility said only 6,000 of those had been without power since the start of the ice storm. "Newer outages are a result of many snow and ice-covered trees becoming damaged and interfering with power lines," it said.
Safety an issue
People desperate to keep warm have been engaging in some dangerous practices.
The incident follows the death of two people in Newcastle after carbon monoxide apparently seeped into their home from the garage where a gas generator was in use, prompting authorities to caution people against using generators, charcoal stoves and barbecues indoors.
Early Christmas morning, two children and two adults in east-end Toronto were taken to hospital to be treated for carbon monoxide poisoning, reportedly after the occupants of an apartment were burning coal to keep warm.
The ice storm downed power lines, left trees and roads covered in ice and caused widespread travel delays.
Toronto Hydro says it is receiving assistance from Hydro Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie PUC, Enwin (Windsor) and Manitoba Hydro.
"They're clapping for us and offering us coffee and food and anything they can possibly do to help us and it's been a really warm welcome," said Manitoba Hydro worker Rowan Andrelunas, who left his wife and three children to spend the holidays helping Toronto Hydro.
In Quebec, some some 2,200 customers are still without electricity. There are some minor delays of flights leaving from Montreal.
There are more than 19,000 people without electricity in New Brunswick, where more than 100 crew area working to restore it.
As of Thursday morning, nearly 11,000 in the Saint John suburb of Rothesay remained without power, as well as another 5,600 in St. Stephen, more than 1,500 in Sussex and 131 customers in Fredericton.
NB Power said it hopes most people will have their power restored by Saturday, but others may have to wait longer.
U.S. storm leads to several deaths
In the U.S., 17 deaths have been linked to the ice storm. Two people are known to have died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Some homes and businesses from Maine to Michigan may not get their power back for another day or longer.
Bangor Hydro Electric in Maine is advising people it will be the end of the day Friday before more than 11,000 customers are back on line. The number has fluctuated as some people get power back while others lose it. The utility said downed trees are the biggest problem facing line crews.
"We've had two beautiful, sunny days in Maine and the ice isn't going anyplace," said Lynette Miller, spokeswoman for the Maine Emergency Management Agency. "They're very concerned about more weight coming down on trees that are already compromised by ice."
Most utility customers in Maine were expected to have their lights on by the end of the week, but there were some pockets where damage was so severe it could take until next Wednesday. More than 100,000 were without power at the storm's peak. As of late Thursday, the number without power in Maine was about 21,000.
More snow fell Thursday in Maine and frigid temperatures were expected to keep ice from melting off power lines and tree branches, posing new risks for outages.
Ashley Walter, 27, was still hunkered down with her husband, Jacob, and their month-old daughter, Leah, at a shelter set up in a school in Litchfield, Maine. The family lost power on Saturday, got it back temporarily, then lost it again Sunday and have been without since.
Despite the challenge of being forced out of the house, especially at Christmas, the family was staying positive.
"It's definitely kind of strange but we're hanging in there," Ashley Walter said Wednesday. "We did our Christmas together last night. I packed little stockings and gave them to my husband, sisters and my daughter."
In Michigan, about 103,000 homes and businesses were still without power late Thursday, down from more than 500,000 at the storm's peak. CMS Energy Corp. said some of its nearly 90,000 customers still offline may have to wait until Saturday to get power back.