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Updated: Sun, 22 Dec 2013 13:07:45 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Storm in Central, Atlantic Canada causes travel chaos, power outages

Trees and limbs are scattered throughout the city. Officials are advising all to remain cautious when outside, especially near downed power lines. Eric Foss/CBC

Trees and limbs are scattered throughout the city. Officials are advising all to remain cautious when outside, especially near downed power lines. Eric Foss/CBC

Snow, ice pellets and freezing rain are hitting Central and Atlantic Canada, causing extensive delays on the road and in the air during one of the busiest travel weekends of the year and knocking out power to hundreds of thousands, possibly until Christmas Day.

Southern Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes are all affected by the massive weather system, which is coating much of the landscape in ice.

The storm, which stretches from southwestern Ontario to the Atlantic Coast, is suspected to have been a factor in three fatal highway accidents in Quebec on Saturday, and another in Ontario.

Dark Christmas? 

Outages affecting an estimated 350,000 hydro customers were reported in Ontario, including 250,000 in the Greater Toronto Area, as ice-coated tree branches snapped, pulling down power lines.

Toronto Hydro CEO Anthony Haines said he considers it the "highest level of emergency" at the utility.

There are more than 90 "large-scale outages" throughout the city and that it could take up to 72 hours to get everyone reconnected, the utility said in a series of tweets.

Haines said the top priority is restoring power to two hospitals and the city's water system, all of which are running on back-up power. Crews will then focus on outages that are affecting a large number of customers before moving on to smaller outages.

Haines said it was difficult to pinpoint when power might be restored because the storm is still happening.

He said it's largely the middle of the city that is affected in a line that runs from Etobicoke to Scarborough.

Normally Toronto Hydro would ask for help from neighbouring utilities but they're all dealing with similar circumstances, Haines said.

The number of outages may rise as winds pick up mid-morning.

No streetcar service

Hour-long delays were reported Sunday along some GO Transit bus routes, subways were skipping some stations and all streetcar service in Toronto is suspended. Provincial police are strongly advising people not to drive unless it's absolutely necessary.

The weather also forced the closure of the Ontario Science Centre.

Hydro Quebec says about 45,000 customers are without power, mainly in the Estrie and Monteregie regions. There are about 1,500 customers affected in Montreal.

NB Power reports 3,800 customers without electricity, with more than 3,600 in St. Stephen.

CBC reporter Sherry Aske said from Macdonald-Cartier International Airport in Ottawa that there were substantial cancellations and delays in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. There are also delays and cancellations at the airports in Saint John, N.B., and St. John's, N.L. "Basically no matter where you are in the [eastern half of the] country right now, if you’re travelling between Canadian cities there’s a very good chance you’re going to have some headaches this morning," she said.

Shorter runway

Aske said scheduled flights from Montreal and Toronto couldn't arrive in Ottawa Saturday night, causing a backlog on Sunday. The weather also means the usable part of the runway is shorter, forcing the airline to bump passengers from planes that are required to be lighter for safe takeoff.

Passengers are being advised to check their flights before heading to the airport.

CBC meteorologist Janine Baijnath said the storm is so large that the type of precipitation varies widely. Environment Canada's warnings include freezing rain, snowfall, rainfall and winter storm, depending on the area.

In Montreal, where there is a winter storm warning in effect, CBC reporter Mathieu Dion said Highway 40 was little used Sunday morning, and vehicles on it were moving slowly.

"The road conditions are really terrible right now," he said.

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