Since Mel Lastman called in the army to dig Toronto out of the snow, our winters have seemed relatively benign. Not this year. The solstice brought an ice storm which started Saturday night and continued until mid-day Sunday. “The Nightmare before Christmas,” as the newspaper called it, is continuing, particularly for those who still have no power.
What started as rain on Saturday quickly turned into ice: ice on the sidewalks, on the overhead electric wires, on the trees and bushes, on the streetcar tracks and cables, on the transit rails. Go Transit was out, streetcars were immobilized, branches of trees fell from the overhead canopy, electric power lines (still live) were down on local streets and sidewalks, traffic lights did not function, Sunnybrook and Toronto East General hospitals were operating on generators. Apparently a newly-constructed water filtration plant was knocked out.
It is the lack of electric power which has particularly affected hundreds of thousands in the city and beyond. The power outages seem to be random, the effects of fallen trees and downed power lines in localized areas. The western part of the downtown core where I live seemed unaffected, until my husband went to Fiesta Farms, our large local supermarket on Christie Street south of Dupont, and found the store (packed with pre-Christmas shoppers) operating on a generator, with no heat, no lights, and half their stock unavailable in the freezers.
My initial telephone calls to local friends confirmed that they were okay. Then I got calls from others, and the stories began to emerge. One friend in North Toronto had a houseful of relatives staying overnight Saturday in anticipation of a big family Christmas celebration the next day. When they awoke Sunday, their power was out and remained out all day, coming on only as they sat down for dinner of purchased dishes and barbecue around 5:00 pm. Their response? To be glad the power was back on, and to phone around to see if anyone wanted to use their house when they left on vacation the next day.
Another friend lives just a block south of the first. She was calling from out of the city. Her neighbour had phoned to tell them that there were so many trees down on the street that it was initially impassable. A city crew cut a path so people could walk in and out, but there was no vehicle access and no electricity. An acquaintance at the YMCA dropped in for a shower. He had no power in his east end home and was busy caring for aged parents living in different apartments in Etobicoke. His father had no elevator service and had to climb nine stories to his apartment. Another friend told of packing up her two cats and bunking in with her in-laws and their dog overnight. She has now learned that power has been restored to her East York home, but she doesn’t want to return too quickly lest it goes off again. Another friend shivered through Sunday night without heat or hot water, and stayed in a hotel last night. She is decamping today to the home of a friend, and is planning to change the venue of her Christmas dinner tomorrow if necessary.
One of our sons reported driving into the city on Monday morning with little traffic, and no functioning traffic lights all the way from the 401 to downtown. Several of his colleagues still had no power. Our other son flew into Pearson airport late last night and saw from the sky a patchwork of lights here and darkness there, all across Mississauga and the city.
This morning, 115,000 Toronto residents are still without power, and another 80,000 in the GTA. Now the temperature has dropped again, and the winds are picking up. Snow is falling on the layers of ice. There have been instances of carbon monoxide poisoning from heaters and barbecues operated indoors. And officials are warning it could be several days before power is fully restored.
This time, there is a genuine problem. Behind the scenes, there is tension over whether or not to “call an emergency.” “The mayor” refuses to declare “an emergency.” If he did, his powers would default to the Deputy Mayor as set out in the Council resolution passed last month. The province is providing assistance without any official designation. Police divisions have opened as warming centers. Hydro, forestry, public works and transit crews are working overtime and on their holidays. The hospitals and most city transit are back on stream. Tonight is Christmas Eve; tomorrow Christmas. People are resilient, will rally, and celebrate as best they can.
Merry Christmas everyone and all the best for a happy and healthy new year.