‘Unprecedented’ blizzard prompts state of emergency in St. John’s, N.L.

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Newfoundland and Labrador’s capital shut down on Friday as blizzard conditions descended on the city and residents prepared for an intense storm expected to last until Saturday.

The City of St. John’s declared a state of emergency, ordering businesses closed and vehicles off the roads. The nearby towns of Mount Pearl, Paradise, Torbay and Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s followed suit shortly afterwards.

Environment Canada has issued blizzard and wind warnings for much of Newfoundland, with the heaviest snow expected in the Avalon and Bonavista peninsulas, where strong winds and blowing snow may cause whiteout conditions until Saturday.

The agency advised of possible damage to shingles or windows on buildings and advised people store objects that could be tossed by the wind and cause more damage.

Residents had been told to prepare for an expected 40 to 75 centimetres of snow. By 12:30 p.m., 33 centimetres had already been recorded at St. John’s International Airport since 5 a.m., according to Environment Canada meteorologist David Neil. He said 20 centimetres had fallen within two hours.

“It’s been very nasty in St. John’s so far and it’s expected to just continue,” Neil said from Gander, where high winds and snow had started to intensify by early afternoon.

By mid-morning in St. John’s, snow was blowing in all directions and city streets were all but abandoned. The provincial government said plows were being taken off highways in the Avalon peninsula due to dangerous conditions, and advised people to avoid travel.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary said its officers were on call and available to respond to emergencies in St. John’s. A spokesman advised people to stay off the roads if possible and prepare for power outages, with flashlights, food and water on hand.

“This is an unprecedented kind of event, this is easily on pace for a record snowfall,” RNC Const. James Cadigan said.

He reminded residents to keep in contact with elderly neighbours and to continuously stay in contact with people if travelling in case of an emergency.

“It’s going to be about the whole community working together here to keep everybody safe.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted his support to Newfoundland and Labrador residents on Friday afternoon. He said Public Safety Minister Bill Blair was in touch with provincial authorities and monitoring the storm, saying “we’re ready to help if needed.”

“To everyone in NL affected by the storm, please listen to your local authorities. We want you to stay safe, and keep the roads clear for emergency vehicles and snow clearing,” Trudeau’s tweet read.

Newfoundland Power reported a number of weather-related outages in parts of the Avalon and Burin peninsulas Friday afternoon, including parts of St. John’s, Mount Pearl, Bell Island and other coastal towns. The utility said impassable roads were preventing crews from accessing the outage areas.

As winds picked up Friday afternoon, the company said extreme winds could cause momentary outages as power lines hit trees or other lines, and asked people to report prolonged outages.

Neil, the meteorologist, said 19.6 centimetres of snow had been recorded in St. Lawrence on the Burin Peninsula, adding the estimate could be lower than the actual snowfall.

The heaviest snow was anticipated during the day but winds were expected to pick up in the evening, with gusts as strong as 150 kilometres per hour near coastal areas and high waves expected along the northeast and east coasts.

Neil advised people to heed emergency warnings and stay indoors.

“This is a very dangerous, dangerous storm,” he said.

Schools and government offices had already been closed in the St. John’s area before the emergency status was announced.

Local taxi company Jiffy Cabs said in a tweet that it was pulling vehicles off the roads for the “first time in our company history.”

The City of St. John’s warned residents to prepare emergency kits with enough supplies to last for at least 72 hours.

“All businesses are ordered to close,” a statement from the city said Friday morning, adding that “all vehicles except emergency vehicles are prohibited from using city streets.” Plowing of streets was to continue.

“Please return home and do not drive until the state of emergency has been lifted,” the statement concluded.

The state of emergency will remain in effect until further notice.

Metrobus Transit cancelled bus service in the city for the day and flights scheduled throughout the day were cancelled at St. John’s International Airport.

With snow blowing in all directions in front of his home in the Georgestown neighbourhood, resident Tiber Reardon was out shovelling on Friday morning to avoid a massive snow drift when the storm eventually dies down.

“I realize how futile this looks … (but) I have this weird logic that if I come out every few hours, then it won’t be so bad and tomorrow it won’t be up to here,” he said, gesturing to the top of his head.

Reardon said there was a certain appeal to witness the furious snowy gales, but said he’d review his plan to keep battling the snowfall as the day continued.

“There’s something neat about being out in it, but we’ll see how it goes today,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2020.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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