Niagara Region declares state of emergency, as blizzard conditions continue for 2nd day

The Niagara Region declared a state of emergency Saturday evening, as blizzard conditions caused travellers and truck drivers to be stranded, some residents to evacuate their homes on Lake Erie and power outages for around 10,000 homes. 

Thousands were without power in Fort Erie area, meanwhile cold alert cancelled in Hamilton

A snowy downtown.
Crystal Beach, near Fort Erie, continued to experience white out conditions Saturday. (Dean Weare/CBC)

The Niagara Region declared a state of emergency Saturday evening, as blizzard conditions caused travellers and truck drivers to be stranded, some residents to evacuate their homes on Lake Erie and power outages for around 10,000 homes. 

The region includes 12 municipalities, including St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, and Fort Erie. The southern part of the region was hit hardest with "blowing snow, white out conditions, and at times zero visibility," over two days, with little pause.

"Residents and visitors should avoid all travel to the southern areas of the Region specifically the municipalities of Fort Erie, Wainfleet and Port Colborne," the region said in a news release. 

The town of Fort Erie made a similar declaration earlier in the day. 

"For those people who still weren't or aren't aware that this is a life-threatening situation, we hope that the declaration of the state of emergency will make it crystal clear for them that in fact that they need to be prudent," Mayor Wayne Redekop told CBC Hamilton Saturday. 

"Please don't be lulled into going for a drive. Please stay off the roads. South Niagara continues to be in blizzard like conditions," Niagara Regional Police Service said. 

Crews with Canadian Niagara Power were unable to continue efforts to restore power for much of the day, as strong winds continued to blow snow and fallen trees made some roads impossible to pass. 

"We've got plans to open up some warming centres but we don't want people to be going out on the roads, which aren't safe... so once the roads become safe, then we'll have some places to go to get warm, to get food, etc.," Redekop said. 

The town said it would post the warming centre locations on its website and social media once the roads cleared. 

A blizzard warning remained in effect Saturday afternoon, but was expected to end by evening. The Peace Bridge border crossing remained closed. 

Redekop says bad storms aren't unusual for Fort Erie, which sits at the tip of Lake Erie, across the border from Buffalo, N.Y., and many residents know how to prepare for power outages and to leave their residence in advance if at the shoreline. Flooding of lakeside properties had already begun to occur Friday in Fort Erie, Crystal Beach and other nearby areas.

"Power might be off for two days, it might be off for longer depending on whether on this storm abates. It's supposed to abate later on this evening, into tomorrow morning. That will give crews the chance to get out," he said. 

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Fort Erie resident Joanie Odding said the storm "isn't fun anymore." Her power was still on but her furnace automatically shut off after snow and ice clogged the exhaust vent. 

"It's so cold. The wind is so cold. It hurts your face. I like to walk in the snow but I've never seen it like this, for so long. We're going on, like what, hour 30?" 

Odding said she's keeping warm with heating pads and candles. She's also checking in on the seniors who live nearby. Her 2-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter who also lives in Fort Erie couldn't sleep last night and was "telling the walls to be quiet" because the wind was so loud, Odding said. 

'People were stranded and snowmobiles were out rescuing people... It hasn't stopped. We haven't had a break," she said. 

At a Walmart in town, 10 staff stayed to help a small family who is still stranded there on Christmas Eve, the company said.

The family, Walmart said, is being "kept warm, cosy and fed" — and is watching movies on a large-screen TV.

Hamilton cancels cold alert but overnight drop-in centre to stay open

Niagara Falls and Welland also had a blizzard warning Saturday.

In Hamilton, a "weather travel advisory" remained in effect, with strong winds, blowing snow and the possibility of "extreme cold wind chills of near minus 30," Environment Canada said Saturday. 

The city of Hamilton had issued a cold alert Friday but Saturday evening it cancelled the alert, saying "temperatures are no longer at or below minus 15 degrees Celsius or minus 20 with wind chill." 

Environment Canada said the temperature measured around 9:30 p.m. at the Hamilton airport was -11C but felt like -23C with the wind chill. 

Jennifer Bonner, executive director of The Hub, which is the designated overnight warming centre when a cold alert is issued, said without the alert, she was worried the drop-in centre would not be open Saturday night.

"The HUB has [received] 4 calls in less than an hour from front line shelter workers looking to see if they can send folks over to a warming centre (males & females) that isn't open tonight. I just don't understand our system," she said on Twitter, shortly after 9 p.m.

A short time later, she said the Hamilton Community Benefits Network told her it would cover costs for the evening so that the drop-in centre, at 78 Vine Street, could remain open, starting from 11 p.m.

"This community is so friggin awesome!... My team and I are prepping now to head down and open up," she said

At Hamilton Health Sciences, on-call burn surgeon Dr. Shahriar Shahrokhi told CBC Hamilton there were four consultations with patients suffering from frostbite injuries Saturday, two of them serious. 

Shahrokhi encouraged people to first stay properly dressed or protected from the elements if possible, but also to seek medical attention, for instance at an urgent care facility, if numbness is felt in hands, toes, ears or any extremities. Delaying medical attention can cause "devastating" damage, such as tissue damage or even amputation. 

"We're always concerned when the weather gets cold and unfortunately the numbers of those suffering homelessness has increased drastically in major city centres. That's a huge concern," Shahrokhi said. 

"I expect to get more calls as the days go by." 

As for what should be done to protect people from frostbite and health impacts of the cold, Shahrokhi said more can be done. 

"There's lack of access to healthcare, there's lack of access to warm shelters... we're failing providing to the most vulnerable in our society."

Storm means changes to holiday plans for many

Many people in Ontario, Quebec and beyond were forced to change holiday plans as storms hit various parts of the country Friday and Saturday. 

Hamilton resident JJ LaBorde said his mother was supposed to be spending her first in-person Christmas since COVID-19 with the family in Hamilton, but winter had other plans. 

LaBorde told CBC Hamilton his mother was supposed to be driving from Toledo, Ohio, on Friday.

"She's disappointed, but I think she's also also relieved. This is a stressful drive on the best of days, so she's relieved to not have to do it." 

Three people smiling at the camera in front of a Christmas tree.
JJ LaBorde, right, with his wife, Susan LaBorde and mom, Ingrid Cooper. (Submitted by JJ LaBorde)

He said although his kids are disappointed they won't get to see Grandma for Christmas, they also understand.

"We we did our best to not to put any amount of guilt on her and let her know that safety comes first... When she started hearing news about the weather coming in, she said 'probably not going to make it, send me a send me a Zoom link because it's going to be another Zoom Christmas.'"

LaBorde said although he has many feelings about not being able to see his mother, he's glad she stayed home.

She was going to drive "through Sarnia and London into Hamilton.

"Thank goodness she didn't. I just saw that there was 100-vehicle collision along that that stretch before London on the 401."

At the Hamilton International Airport (YHM), three airlines had at least eight cancelled flights combined as of Friday. Five of those flights were supposed to leave on Friday, and three on Christmas Eve. 

Six of the cancelled flights were from Swoop, and one each from Lynx Air and Sunwing Airlines.

Across Canada, many airports are having similar situations.

WestJet cancelled all flights out of B.C. and Ontario ahead of the storm.

At the Vancouver International Airport, most flights were cancelled due to the winter storm.

Pearson International Airport also had a good portion of flights cancelled.

With files from Aura Carreño Rosas, Samantha Craggs