Emergency crews head to storm battered Magdalen Islands

A Canadian Forces airplane is headed to Montreal and Quebec City to pick up troops and material before landing in the Magdalen Islands this afternoon.

Canadian Forces plane lands in Magdalen Islands Friday afternoon

There is still plenty of work to be done to clean up after the storm that hit the Magdalen Islands this week. (Bruno Lelièvre/Radio-Canada)

Quebec's public security minister says the government's priority is making sure people in the Magdalen Islands are safe, following a severe windstorm that knocked out power and telecommunications services Thursday.

"My priority now is the safety and health of the people over there, and then it's to have people over there being able to feed us with precise information about what is needed," said Geneviève Guilbault.

The mayor, Jonathan Lapierre, told Radio-Canada that authorities are dealing with the situation now but that it remains "very precarious."

Power lines were knocked down and the two fibre optic cables that link the islands to the mainland were cut by the storm, which brought winds reaching speeds of 120 kilometres an hour to the area. 

Internet and cell phone service was restored late Thursday. But thousands of Hydro-Québec customers are still without electricity — by the end of the day, the public utility expects to have about 40 employees on the ground there.

The Quebec government asked for assistance from the military late yesterday.

Two Canadian Forces Hercules airplanes will bring Hydro workers, Bell employees, civil servants, military personnel and material to the islands. One of the planes landed at the airport in the Magdalen Islands just before 3 p.m. on Friday.

Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the military personnel will help local authorities do health and safety checks with residents.

"The whole purpose is to get on the scene with the right technical people to be able to examine the physical circumstances, do the necessary recognizance to recognize what needs to be done," Goodale said.

Citizens are being asked to limit their water consumption and boil tap water before drinking it. The fire that destroyed a housing complex on Thursday also damaged the water line.

While conditions are improving, there is still work to do to recover.

Guilbault said the government is looking at what can be done long-term to fortify the fibre optic lines that provide phone and internet service.

She did not provide details, saying the government doesn't have an accurate overview of the situation yet.

Lapierre, the Magdalen Islands mayor, urged the province to move quickly to ensure the stability of the area's power and telecommunications network.

"It's time to act. It's time for the new government to finance our community," he said.

'Hit at full force'

Olivier Leblanc says he was inside his home when the windstorm hit overnight on Thursday.

"I live in a house made of wood, so at one point, it was quite scary," he said.

Once cell service was restored, he received a flood of calls from family and friends concerned about his well-being. 

"There were a lot of people trying to call me to see what was happening," he said.

"All they've heard about the tempest is that the army is coming and we are isolated. It looked like a disaster but in fact, everything is OK."

Hydro-Québec chartered a plane to get its workers to the islands. It estimates 90 per cent of customers will have their electricity back by Sunday. (Bruno Lelièvre/Radio-Canada)

Storms are not out of the ordinary, Leblanc says.

"At this period of year, we have the worst tempest of all because there is no ice around the island so the waves are coming crashes and the wind has no barrier to stop it," he said.

"We get hit at full force."

Leblanc does admit that the province needs to take a look at the infrastructure and see if there is some way to prevent the power from going out every time there's a storm.

With files from Quebec AM and Sarah Leavitt