Manitoba to declare state of emergency due to October snowstorm

Premier Brian Pallister is set to declare a state of emergency for the first time in more than five years after receiving a request from Manitoba Hydro, as a major snowstorm creates havoc across the southern portion of the province.

Manitoba Hydro makes request to Premier Pallister so it can access more resources

A fallen oak tree is seen in Winnipeg. (Submitted by Lane Gibson)

Premier Brian Pallister is set to declare a state of emergency after receiving a request from Manitoba Hydro, as a major snowstorm creates havoc across the southern portion of the province.

With about 50,000 Manitoba Hydro clients without electrical power as a result of the treacherous storm, Pallister gave an update Saturday afternoon in an address at the Manitoba Legislature.

"I have spoken to Manitoba Hydro. They have officially made a request to declare a state of emergency which would give them additional powers to access resources, supplies, materials that they need at various descriptions in order to restore power as quickly as possible," the premier said.

"We'll be proceeding to grant that request… to bring about the ability of Manitoba Hydro to proceed more rapidly."

The province's co-ordinated emergency centre has escalated to Level 3 — a "heightened level of concern," Pallister said.

"We have hydro towers that are leaning, we have wooden poles that have snapped, we have major work underway," he said.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister announces the province will declare a state of emergency during an update on the October storm at the provincial legislature in Winnipeg on Saturday. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

The last time Manitoba declared a state of emergency was in 2014 due to a surge in floodwaters.

Manitoba Hydro is still putting in writing the specifics of their request, Pallister said. The intention of the declaration is to give the Crown corporation time, and additional resources to do their repairs.

Hydro spokesperson, Bruce Owen, said the utility is in contact with other regions and expects crews from other provinces and possibly northern U.S. states will be brought in to help once the state of emergency is official.

On Wednesday, a Colorado-low weather system moved into Manitoba from the United States. It has wreaked havoc by downing power lines and tree limbs across the province, from the southwest corner into the Red River Valley and northwest toward Berens River and into Saskatchewan.

Many vehicles have been damaged from falling tree branches. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

"We've had very heavy and freezing rain, heavy snow and strong winds," Pallister said, adding that 50 to 70 millimetres of precipitation has draped trees filled with colourful leaves and already saturated soils.

An additional 20 to 25 millimetres is expected to fall in the south and central parts of the province into Sunday.

Evacuations underway

Several rural Indigenous communities, such as Peguis First Nation, are preparing to evacuate due to outages.

Jason Small, a spokesperson for Canadian Red Cross, confirmed the national charity will begin assisting some First Nations on Sunday, depending on access and power restoration, as per an agreement with the federal government.

No details could be provided about who or how many people would be affected, he said. The Interlake Reserves Tribal Council Inc. has been working with the six communities in its region to make relocation plans in the interim, Small said.

Bruce Owen from Manitoba Hydro says hundreds of poles and transformers are 'severely destroyed.' (Submitted by Manitoba Hydro)

In addition, the Assembly of First Nations said in a release O-Chi-Chak-Ko-sipi and Dakota Tipi First Nations are declaring states of emergency due to power outages and severe weather. 

It is expected Sandy Bay and Skownan First Nations will call for emergency aid soon. 

First Nations in flood zones, like Fisher River, are about to begin emergency sandbagging to protect homes and infrastructure, AFN said.

Manitoba regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations Kevin Hart told CBC News this extreme weather event is devastating areas that still have damage from flooding nearly nine years ago. 

"We have an already devastated area in the Interlake as you know from 2010 and '11. There's a lack of infrastructure there from those floods and now with these extreme weather events that we've experienced here in Manitoba a lot of us didn't realize the full extent of the damage until yesterday [Saturday] morning," he said.

Some people have been without power for more than 48 hours.

Owen said the province's electricity provider is unable to estimate how long it will take to restore power to all users given the volume of reports and difficulty in accessing areas due to wet grounds.

Crews have been busy tackling major jobs — like a downed transmission line in Portage la Prairie — that "can't simply be fixed with a bucket truck," Owen said in a plea to residents and potential travellers over the Thanksgiving long weekend.

"So if you don't have to travel, if you don't have to go anywhere, please stay put," Owen said.

Portage la Prairie goes dark

Storm damage forced major temporary highway and road closures in southern Manitoba, including Highway 1 west of Winnipeg to the Saskatchewan border. Most roadways have since reopened, according to Manitoba 511's online report.

The majority of Portage la Prairie — a city of about 13,000 residents located 83 kilometres west of Winnipeg along the Trans-Canada Highway — has been without power.

"Power has been restored to extreme east end including to the area where our hospital and two care homes are, and power has been restored in the extreme west end and also this morning power has come on in the island. However probably 80 per cent of the city remains without hydro," Mayor Irvine Ferris said.

Sixty people are staying in a shelter and about 300 people have been set up in hotels, which have all filled up, Ferris said.

Residents should expect to be without power for at least another 24 hours. Ferris warned them to be careful when using alternate sources of heating and follow manufacturers instructions to remain safe.

The city is also worried about the effect on drains and lift stations that carry wastewater to the water treatment plant, and is asking residents to avoid using water for showering, doing dishes and flushing the toilet to avoid sewer backups.

Ralph Groening, the reeve of the Rural Municipality of Morris, said many residents lost power on Thursday, which has since been restored. About half of Morris residents were without power for two days, he said.

"Our residents certainly had to survive a few days without power and that created a challenge," Groening said.

Groening, who is also president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, said the most pressing concern now is rising waters after a record-setting wet September and additional precipitation pounded the Prairie region where the Red Rivers flows from south of the U.S. border to the Hudson Bay.

"We will certainly be preparing for and doing everything we can to anticipate the high water problems that possibly could be a challenge for us," Groening said.

Flood risk increasing as water levels rise

In addition to huge swaths of power outages, rising waters levels also have the province on edge. Pallister said there are high water advisories in effect.

"Crews and equipment are staged in a number of high risk areas," he said, including the Red River Valley, Interlake region, southeastern Manitoba and the Whiteshell area.

The city of Winnipeg has already closed the floodgates and activated the Red River floodway on Wednesday to prevent flooding in the capital region.

Pumping operations are already underway in Emerson, Morris, Dominion City and some other communities.

Several areas have experienced overland flooding and road washouts due to high levels of precipitation.

Two government departments — Manitoba Infrastructure and Sustainable Development — will continue to monitor the situation.

As of 3 p.m. on Sunday there were more than 30,000 hydro customers without power, according to Manitoba Hydro's online outage report, which is updated regularly.

More winter storm stories from CBC Manitoba:

With files from Austin Grabish, Alana Cole and Rachel Bergen