Snowstorm freezes Interlake to standstill

A line of cars travels westbound on Highway 67 in the RM of Rockwood, Man. through a snowstorm on Oct. 11, 2019. (Adam Peleshaty/The Stonewall Argus and Teulon Times/Postmedia Network)

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An unprecedented early October snowstorm powered by high winds and heavy precipitation wreaked havoc on the southern half of Manitoba, causing numerous road closures and power outages across the Interlake region.

Between 50 to 60 millimetres of precipitation, as well as winds exceeding 80 km/h, descended onto parts of central and southern Manitoba on Oct. 10 and 11 as a winter storm system downed trees, damaged Hydro lines and made driving conditions treacherous. The province declared a state of emergency on Oct. 13, days after other municipalities had done the same, in order for Manitoba Hydro to invoke mutual aid clauses with neighbouring utilities for assistance. It was the first time Manitoba Hydro had sent out an SOS to its neighbours and it was the first time a state of emergency had been declared by the province since flooding in 2014.

“It is clear the tremendous effort to restore power and other activities will be ongoing for some time,” Premier Brian Pallister said in a press release. “The state of emergency will help with that effort.”

Jay Grewal, president and CEO of Manitoba Hydro, said it was damage on a scale “never before seen.” While Ontario’s Hydro One sent equipment and 20 workers to Arborg and other parts of the Interlake, some residents were left without power for a number of days.

“Unfortunately, full restoration to all customers in those hardest hit areas will likely not be complete for a period of seven to 10 days (after the storm),” he said in a statement on Oct. 14.

The Interlake, especially the northern half, was one of those hardest hit areas. Manitoba Hydro confirmed that 1,000 wooden hydro poles in the region, and another 2,000 province-wide, were broken in the storm and are in need of replacement.

As of 4:15 p.m on Oct. 17, 294 outages remained with 6,938 customers affected across the province. Of those numbers, the RM of West Interlake had 11 outages with 1,040 customers affected while the RM of Grahamdale had 27 outages with 1,558 customers affected. Peguis First Nation had 476 customers still without power.

The Interlake-Eastern Regional Health Authority was also forced to divert ambulances from hospitals in Ashern and Eriksdale who were running on generators, while clinics in Beausejour, Fisher Branch and St. Laurent were closed on Oct. 11.

Elections Canada either closed or moved advanced polling stations in Peguis First Nation, Lake St. Martin and Koostatak.

However, municipalities took action to help residents as employees plowed out roads and warming centres for Manitoba Hydro workers and residents without power were opened in Ashern, Eriksdale, Moosehorn, Peguis FN, Fisher River Cree Nation, Arborg, Riverton and Winnipeg Beach.

“Warming stations will be reopened in both Ashern and Eriksdale today to accommodate those still without power. There are also people going door-to-door in the rural areas to check on residents,” Courtney Roehl, CAO of the RM of West Interlake, wrote in an email to The Interlake Spectator on Oct. 14.

In Peguis and Fisher River CN, some residents were evacuated to warming centres set up by the Canadian Red Cross as well as hotels in Winnipeg. All six communities of the Interlake Reserves Tribal Council, including Peguis, all declared states of emergency.

“Our communities are vulnerable in natural disasters such as these, we cannot wait 72 hours to declare a state of emergency,” IRTC chairman Cornell McLean said in a press release.

High winds due to the storm caused tall waves to crash onto shorelines of Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba, while downed power lines caused residents along Lake Winnipeg to be without power.

Power outages and road closures were reported in the southern parts of the Interlake, but no warming centres were opened by municipalities. However, the Red River Floodway was activated on Oct. 9 due to the increased rain and snow and two days later, Provincial Road 320 near Netley Creek was closed due to flooding.

Some residents in the RM of Woodlands not only dealt with a lack of power, but also had no running water. Reeve Lori Schellekens reached out to residents via community Facebook pages, while the Whispering Winds of Warren Golf Course and Rubber Ducky Resort opened their doors to residents looking to warm up. Traffic lights at the intersection of Highways 67 and 7 went out on the afternoon of Oct. 11 and stayed that way for approximately 40 hours.

— With files from Glen Dawkins, Postmedia Network