Christmas is a time for family and get-togethers, but for tens of thousands of people today, it also means scrambling to find warmth following last weekend's ice storm.

Toronto officials said Wednesday that the number of customers without electricity had dropped to about 68,000 from a high of about 300,000. The ice storm last weekend slammed into southern Ontario last weekend before moving east and causing havoc in the Maritimes, and in the northeastern U.S.

At a news conference Wednesday morning, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford said workers from other utilities in Ontario, as well as Manitoba, have been working around the clock. The cleanup of all the tree branches that have either fallen or been removed, along with other debris, could take four to six weeks. 

"This has been a very challenging four days; we are going to stay here and give you updates every day until we restore power," Ford told reporters at city hall.

In other parts of the country, crews are still working to restore power in parts of southern Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. 

People desperate to keep warm have been engaging in some dangerous practices.

'Our power is out and we can't cook our turkey meal, which sucks.'- Saint John resident 

Early Christmas morning, two children and two adults in east-end Toronto were taken to hospital to be treated for carbon monoxide poisoning, reportedly after the occupants of an apartment were burning coal to keep warm.

The incident follows the death of two people in Newcastle, Ont., after carbon monoxide apparently seeped into their home from the garage where a gas generator was in use, prompting authorities to caution people against using  generators, charcoal stoves and barbecues indoors.

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No tree stood unscathed on one Brampton, Ont., street after an ice storm hit over the weekend. (Submitted by Bailey Parnell)

The ice storm downed power lines, left trees and roads covered in ice and caused widespread travel delays.

Power Stream, the utility that serves Markham, Richmond Hill and Vaughan, among other Ontario communities, reported 12,100 customers were still down by early Wednesday. Veridian Connections, which serves the Pickering and Ajax areas east of Toronto, said about 4,000 customers were still affected.

Hydro One, which serves 1.3 million customers in Ontario including Guelph, Peterborough and Walkerton, had 21,000 customers still without power.

In other parts of Canada:

  • Hydro Quebec said some 15,000 customers were without electricity, primarily in the Eastern Townships.
  • In New Brunswick, just under 21,000 customers were still in the dark, with about half of them in the Rothesay area. 
  • In Nova Scotia, the number of outages had been cut to less than 1,000 by late Tuesday, and all power had been restored by Christmas Day.

Holiday plans disrupted

Toronto Hydro says it is receiving assistance from Hydro Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie PUC, Enwin (Windsor) and Manitoba Hydro.

Besides burdening residents, the fallout from the ice storm has also disrupted emergency workers' plans who have been helping to restore power.

Manitoba Hydro worker Darren McMurdo said he had an early Christmas with his wife and kids to travel to the Toronto area to help out.

"We had a little Christmas in a hurry last night," McMurdo told CBC News on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne reacted to criticism that power wasn't being restored quickly enough by saying: "So far the progress we're seeing in affected communities is very encouraging." 

"We're three days into this and tens of thousands of people who didn't have power — hundreds of thousands of people who didn't have power  — have power now and the progress has been remarkable."

Many customers, however, could be without electricity until the weekend, and Toronto Hydro CEO Anthony Haines said the situation could get worse.

"I can honestly say I've never paid so much attention to the weather forecast before in my life until I did this week," he said Tuesday morning.

U.S. storm leads to several deaths

The utility put out a call on Twitter asking anyone who runs a restaurant that will be open on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to contact them as the crews working to restore power need food.

The CBC's Catherine Harrop said from Fredericton on Tuesday morning that N.B. Power was facing a tough job.

"N.B. Power is saying they're really struggling because, of course, the crews have to work on ice and they're working with those who can take down tree limbs at the same time as the linemen are working on the power lines. So it's a pretty tricky situation."

While the ice storm's devastation has left many people frantic, one Saint John resident calmly expressed her frustration to CBC News on Christmas Eve, saying: "Our power out and we can't cook our turkey meal, which sucks."

In the U.S., the nationwide death toll from the storm reached at least 14, when a 50-year-old man in Maine was overcome by carbon monoxide fumes from a generator. It was the second reported death attributed to fumes from a generator during the storm.

The number of customers in Maine without power had dropped to 70,000 by Wednesday morning. In Michigan, about 156,000 remained without power Wednesday afternoon, down from more than 500,000 at the storm's peak

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press