A major cleanup is underway in Quebec after a record-setting snowstorm that left hundreds stranded on a highway in Montreal and many schools, universities and daycares closed across the province. 

A total of 40 centimetres has fallen in Montreal since the snow began Tuesday, while other parts of the province were digging out from as much as 70 centimetres of snow. 

Many flights at Trudeau airport were cancelled or delayed, and most school boards in the province were closed Wednesday. 

Schools are expected to reopen Thursday, including those in the English Montreal School Board and Lester B. Pearson School Board. 

Storm claims at least 4 lives

Across the province, at least four people died as a result of the powerful winter storm.

One of the men called 911 at around 11:30 p.m., but police efforts to reach the vehicle by cruiser, snowmobile and finally wading through the deep, driving snow didn't succeed until just before daybreak. By the time the vehicle was finally located at 6 a.m., the men, 33 and 41, were already dead. 

  • A man in his 50s was killed around 6 a.m. in Saint-Anselme, about 40 kilometres south of Quebec City, when he was struck by a snow-clearing vehicle.
     
  • A 40-year-old truck driver died after a fiery crash involving at least seven transport trucks forced the closure of Highway 20 near Saint-Zotique, just east of the Ontario border, during rush hour on Tuesday. A three-kilometre stretch of the highway's westbound lanes remain closed on Wednesday evening, as the cleanup of a toxic spill from one of the tanker-trucks continues.

The storm led to a number of other accidents and some major crashes, including a 50-vehicle pileup on Highway 10 near Magog.

300 stranded overnight in Montreal's west end

Roughly 300 vehicles were stuck on a stretch of Highway 13 near Montreal's Lachine borough after a truck went off the road at about 7 p.m., their drivers and passengers left stranded overnight. Provincial police, helped by Montreal firefighters, didn't begin clearing the highway until around 4:30 Wednesday morning.

Lee-Ann Kovacic, a bartender, was among those who spent the night in her car.  She told CBC News that police walked along the highway knocking on car windows, telling drivers one by one to turn around and drive the opposite way.

Drivers stuck on Highway 13 for hours0:53

"There's no way to get off the 13, and once you were there, you're just stuck," she said.  "At one point, there was this man walking over with a thermos full of coffee handing it to everybody in the cars."

What went wrong on Highway 13?

The night-long saga had officials scrambling to explain the slow response in a province used to major snowfalls.

A furious Mayor Denis Coderre blamed Quebec's Transport Ministry for its failure to co-operate in a timely way with the city administration.

"I think the situation was unacceptable," Coderre said.

Highway 13

Crews were working to clear up Highway 13 in Montreal on Wednesday following the storm. (Alexandre Letendre/CBC)

Speaking in Quebec City, Premier Philippe Couillard said the response was "lacking co-ordination."

He said the storm was "exceptional" but that means it deserved "an exceptional response."

"We have to take the lessons from this situation and do better — much better — next time," he said.

Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux vowed to get to the bottom of what happened within 48 hours.

"They don't defend the undefendable," Coderre responded later in the day. "But they are looking for answers."

Snow-clearing begins

In Montreal, major arteries had been cleared of snow by mid-morning, even as the snow continued to fall. 

With the snow finally petering out, snow-clearing equipment will be out in force in Montreal beginning at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The city said 2,200 snow-clearing vehicles are to be out on the streets.

The mayor urged residents to stay home or take the Metro.

Montreal's public transit agency, the STM, warned commuters to expect delays. More than 200 buses were stuck in some parts of the city, and the STM said 100 drivers were unable to make it to work themselves Wednesday morning.

Cote Vertu station

Montrealers pitched in to push an STM bus out of the snow at Côte-Vertu Metro station Tuesday evening. (submitted by Andrew Taal)

'Exceptional' storm, provincewide

The storm dumped nearly 60 centimetres on some parts of the Eastern Townships, while the Montérégie and Bois-Franc areas were hit with 75 centimetres.

Que Winter Storm 20170315

A man shovels snow from around his car following the storm that slammed southern Quebec. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

In Quebec City, Champlain Boulevard, a major thoroughfare that runs along the Saint-Lawrence River, is partially closed to traffic due to flooding. 

Quebec City

Champlain Boulevard was flooded near Dalhousie Street by Quebec City's old port. (Pascal Poinlane/Radio-Canada)

Quebec City police are asking drivers to avoid the area. Highways 20 and 138 north of Quebec City were closed to traffic, while Highway 132 in the Gaspé was closed almost the whole way around the peninsula.

More than 35,000 Hydro-Québec clients were without power across the province Wednesday evening.


Got a story from the storm? Send it to webquebec@cbc.ca

With files from Lauren McCallum and Marilla Steuter-Martin