Extensive hydro pole damage keeping Interlake residents powerless

Manitoba Hydro is estimating close to 3,000 poles have been damaged. The reeve of the RM of West Interlake is worried power could be out longer than the seven to 10 day timeline.

Despite significant damage, Hydro spokesperson said power should be restored within 7 to 10 days

Manitoba Hydro said over 1700 poles in the Interlake region were damaged in the the Thanksgiving weekend storm. (Submitted by Arnthur Jonasson)

It's creeping up on a week without power, heat or water inside Cory Johnson's house located outside Ashern, Man., and his family of six is concerned that with the extensive damage to the hydro infrastructure in the community, the lights won't be on as quickly as estimated.

"We're all sleeping in one room at this point because it's hard to heat an entire house," Johnson said. "We have to go get water usually every two days, we go to Ashern to get water and fuel."

Heavy snow and winds pounded Manitoba last Thursday and Friday leaving thousands in the dark. On Sunday, Premier Brian Pallister called a state of emergency following the snowstorm.

Since that time, front-line Manitoba Hydro workers have been scheduled to work without any days off to get power restored to the areas affected within seven to 10 days, but even then, there is worry that the damage may be too much to fix so quickly.

"We've been telling people to prepare to be in it for a long time," said Arnthor Jonasson, the Reeve of the RM of West Interlake. 

Jonasson oversees Ashern and Eriksdale, both towns that have hundreds of homes still in the dark, as they've suffered significant damage to their hydro infrastructure.

"There's power out to over a thousand residents...hospitals that in the towns don't have power," he said.

As of late Tuesday afternoon, 1,057 were still without power, but Hydro spokesperson, Bruce Owen said the original timeline of seven to 10 days is still on target, if the weather co-operates.

"There are people in the area, there are people there, and there are people coming...we're redeploying a lot of resources to that area," said Owen.

Reeve of RM of West Interlake, Arnthor Jonasson says there’s 700+ hydro poles that are down and out of commission in his region. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

Manitoba Hydro is estimating the damage in the Interlake area at 1,391 wood poles broken, significant cross-arm damage and at least 38 transmission towers down. There are about 3,000 poles down in the province because of the storm.

"They should be expecting a large response, we've got many different camps set up in St. Martin, Lundar and we're on top of it," he said.

In Lundar, there are multiple camps being set up to accommodate 150 hydro workers, while in St. Martin a single camp of 100 is being set up. Owen said the decision to set up camps as opposed to living in hotels allows for those in need to use them instead.

Owen says fixing those wood poles is a high priority, as they're the link to Northern Manitoba, and getting them up and running will ensure power is restored to First Nations as well.

Tough choices

Jonasson said some of the people in the area were reasonably prepared to deal with the power outages as they stocked up on food and had backup generators on hand. But even those relying on generators to get by are having to decide between necessities.

In his home, Cory Johnson has a 4,000 watt generator running around the clock and it's allowed him to hook up a couple of heaters and keep the fridge on, but no power in the area has led him to close the doors on his auto repair shop, Silver Bay Auto, for the time being.

"It's a tough, tough choice...[right now] we do operate on what the kids tell us if they're cold or not, we're trying our best," said Johnson.

"You try your hardest not to show the stress as much around your family, of course, but it's financially a little bit harder, but, what can I do do at this point?" he said.

The Johnson family made the trip to Winnipeg to visit a Costco on Tuesday afternoon to buy a pair of generators and food. (Submitted by Cory Johnson)

While stress and concern are evident, Johnson is still showing kindness to his neighbours by ensuring they've got their needs covered, too.

"I've been helping out people as much as I can, getting other generators going...loaning one of mine out, trying to help," he said, adding the power went off for many on Friday.

"People are trying to cope the best they can, we've gone around door-to-door in the rural areas where there's no power and checking on people to make sure that they're able to cope," he said.

Wooden poles that have not fallen have been swept to one side, and many have at least one broken electrical wire. (Submitted by Arnthur Jonasson)

Jonasson declared a state of emergency on Saturday morning after finding out that three personal care homes, housing 60 people in total, were without power for more than 14 hours.

"It's around zero to three degrees, so the houses are getting cool, but they're not getting life threatening," said Jonasson. 

Unlike the city, being in a rural area without power can be much more challenging due to the lack of accessibility of resources, Jonasson says.

"Some people live 50 to 60 kilometres from town. We've cleared all the rural roads, so hydro crews can get around to fix what they need and people can get out," he said.

Jonasson said while most people have decided to stay in their homes and trust their generators, some packed up and went south to Winnipeg to stay with family.

But Jonasson said despite distances. tough times bring his community together.

"You are isolated, but you are also a part of a community , people are checking on each other and there's you know people going door-to-door..when things like this happen it brings out the best in people," said Jonasson.

But, all that is moot, especially if power isn't restored soon and cold begins to set in, Johnson is concerned for the wellbeing of his kids.

"If it gets cold, it will be a disaster."

Supplies in demand

Alicia Carpenter, a manager at Home Hardware in Ashern says there's been an increased demand of people looking to get their hands on generators.

"Right now, I've got a list of at least 20 people who have given me their names, either to buy one, or to get a loan out," she said.

Carpenter noted that she has requested generators be brought in from different communities to ensure people can get back on the grid.

Other hot ticket items are water bottles, propane tanks, electrical hookups, hot plates and candles, said Carpenter.

A handful of businesses and local buildings are being used as warming centres, where people can come stay warm and get a hot shower in.

Farmers affected

Just north of Johnson, the situation isn't any easier for Lyle Cook, a cattle farmer who is coming up on day seven without power, which brings along many challenges in his line of work.

"No one is ever prepared for you know something that severe...there's water everywhere and even trying to feed [the livestock] is becoming challenging..everything is flooded and we're in an area where there's little to no drainage," he said.

Cattle farmer Lyle Cook said his livestock has been affected by the recent snowstorm and the lack of electricity available. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Cook says as he looks out to his fields, he says a blanket of white covering his field, and more groundwater than the past two spring season combined. 

For the past few days, Cook has been relying on an old-school generator to keep the basic necessities running, but has had to alternate through keeping the food cold or the home warm.

"You're good for three and half hours, but if you shut off the little heaters it reduces the load, and then you're just powering the fridge and  the deep freeze," he said.

All the wood poles near Cook's farm have ever been brought down by the weather, or are barely standing, but their wires are mangled.

"It's not a pretty sight, there's just wreckage all over the place," said Cook.

Manitoba Hydro is estimating at least 1,400 damaged electrical wood poles in the RM of West Interlake. 2:44