Winter storm wreaks havoc across Canada

Volunteer firefighters from Plympton-Wyoming, Ont. greet stranded truck driver Charles Bartold...

Volunteer firefighters from Plympton-Wyoming, Ont. greet stranded truck driver Charles Bartold after he was rescued Tuesday by a CH146 Griffon helicopter. A pair of the Canadian military helicopters were deployed to the area Tuesday to rescue highway passengers stranded as a result of an intense snow storm that had walloped the area for 48 hours. (Special to QMI Agency)

DEBORA VAN BRENK and SHAWN JEFFORDS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:49 AM ET

SARNIA, Ont. - Tino Villarreal rubs his hands and smiles.

"I'm happy to be warm. It was cold out there."

The 24-year-old truck driver from Flint, Michigan was one of hundreds of motorists rescued by police and military personnel Tuesday after spending the night in vehicles locked in a vicious winter storm.

"The only thing I could see was the truck I was stuck next to," said Villarreal, who was delivering a load of car parts to the Ford plant in Oakville when his rig hit whiteouts Monday afternoon east of Sarnia.

Clad in a hoodie, jeans, and Detroit Tigers ballcap, he borrowed a blanket from another nearby driver and used three quarters of a tank of gas trying to stay warm.

"I wasn't ready for the storm. This is all I wore. I wasn't expecting to get stuck," he said.

Villarreal was one of the first to arrive at one of eight warming centres in Sarnia, Ont., located on the shores of Lake Huron. The centres offered food and shelter to drivers and passengers rescued from more than 200 stranded vehicles.

"I haven't eaten since 5 a.m. yesterday," Villarreal said Tuesday as a pot of chili bubbled in the club house kitchen. "I'm just lucky I had my cellphone and I was able to get a hold of the police."

The chilled and stranded arrived by bus, snowmobile and helicopter.

"For the most part they're in reasonably good shape considering some have been in their cars for 24 hours," Jim Kutyba, Lambton County's general manager of infrastructure and development services. The county declared a state of emergency Monday night after the storm moved in, stranding drivers along Highway 402 between Sarnia and London.

Cots were set up and volunteers whipped up meals. The OPP were establishing a marshaling yard where stranded vehicles could be towed as roads are cleared, Kutyba said.

"(Drivers) might be there for a couple of nights by the sound of it. It's going to be a while before the cars are cleaned off (Highway) 402."

Using all available resources, from helicopters to snowmobiles, rescue workers and volunteers Tuesday plucked hundreds of stranded motorists from vehicles that had been marooned along Hwy 402 in blinding, blistering whiteout conditions.

By late Tuesday afternoon, at least 237 people --many of them had been waiting hours -- had been rescued during a ground and air rescue mission headed by the OPP and aided by Canadian Forces, Lambton County Emergency Services, the Ministry of Transportation and volunteer snowmobile clubs.

Tuesday evening, police were still out on the freeway, "double-checking" to be sure nobody was left in any of the more than 200 vehicles stranded in the snow squalls that started Monday, said OPP Const. Liz Melvin.

The tired and cold motorists spent the night in their vehicles through the extended whiteout, in many cases sharing their rides to save energy and heat.

But the helicopters were having trouble helping in the rescue operations due to weather conditions.

While police advised residents travel was virtually impossible in many areas, tow trucks and road crews slowly began to make headway in restoring service by Tuesday afternoon.

David Beath was among the first to be rescued after spending 26 hours trapped in his car.

"When traffic stopped (Monday morning), I thought it was just an accident and I didn't think too much of it," said Beath, a food and beverage manager for Best Western in London.

"Then as time went on and we weren't moving and the weather got worse I realized this was something bad.

"When the sun went down, I thought to myself, 'Oh man, this is going to be a long night,'" he said. "I woke up a couple times shivering, so I turned the car back on. But it would take 20 minutes or so to warm up because I was just sitting there.

"It was pretty cold. I could see other cars but most people were staying inside, like the radio was telling us to do. There was one trucker who came by about 10 p.m. letting people know that if they were running out of gas they could jump in his truck because he had enough gas to go all night."

In the morning, he said people began to get out of their cars and dig themselves out. Soon some of the trucks were able to break through the bigger drifts, and he was able to follow in their tracks.

Other had help from police while some nearby residents opened their doors to the stranded.

"The people of this town are really coming together. They've given us blankets, warm clothes, food. There's a couple here who have brought us into their home. We could be here for another day," said Robert Williams, who was driving a U-Haul with his wife and their two-month-old infant, in the process of moving from Ontario to Iowa, when they became stuck in the snow.

"The couple won't let us do anything to repay them. They're such nice people."

As the 402 remained closed from the Bluewater Bridge in Sarnia to the Hwy, 401 near London Tuesday night, London braced for an expected "clobbering."

"We can see on the radar there is heavier activity to the west and the east, but there is lots more activity to come," said Environment Canada's Geoff Coulson.

"If a band does lock in, there is potential for 15 to 20 cm of fresh snow tonight, another 15 cm on Wednesday," he said.

"This one is going to be a situation where the officials in the city will have to watch the radar closely," he warned.

The storm also hammered Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

In southern Quebec, whiteout conditions slowed traffic to a crawl in many areas.

In the Gaspe region in eastern Quebec, where temperatures have been milder, heavy rain and violent winds prompted civil security officials to issue storm-surge warnings. Wind gusts topped 110 km/h in some areas, and residents in coastal areas braced for storm surges.

Landslides blocked two regional highways there.

In Nova Scotia, the roof of a seniors' centre caved in, schools were closed in Labrador, heavy rains caused waist-deep flooding in parts of New Brunswick and schools remained closed across the region.

As many as 70,000 people were without power across the Maritime provinces.

Toronto's Pearson International Airport reported flights to the Atlantic region and southern Ontario were cancelled or delayed Tuesday.

Travellers are advised to call ahead to check on the status of their flights before leaving for the airport.

Airports in Atlantic Canada reported similar delays.

- with files from QMI Agency


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