Top ten weather stories for 2010: story five

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5. Storm for the Ages: “Flurries”, Fury and Floods

A map of Canada highlighting the regions of the country that have been impacted by a series of storms in December.  Southwestern Ontario, Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec, the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and parts of the island of Newfoundland.

Two weeks before Christmas, a massive and powerful storm crawled across the eastern half of North America inflicting death, destruction and extreme hardship on thousands of people. The intense system originated west of the Great Lakes, but its reach and misery were felt everywhere in the East. It will be best remembered for the snow and wind that took down the inflatable roof of the Metrodome in Minneapolis.  But it also generated a freeze scare in Florida’s vegetable fields and delayed a scheduled test of the space shuttle Discovery. In the central U.S., it clogged countless highways and delayed thousands of flights. At least 15 deaths were attributed to the storm.

Storm surge hits near Pointe-au-Père, Quebec.  © Claude Coulombe 2010.

In Canada, the historic storm was even meaner and more punishing but much less deadly. Across Ontario, the storm brought the usual mix of rain, snow and freezing rain, but it was on exiting the province on December 13 that it had the greatest impact. Following a fresh deposit of 15 cm of snow, cold air and strong winds raced across the relatively warm open waters of Lake Huron brewing up a new batch of lake-effect snow that headed west of London into Lambton County and Sarnia. Driven by wind gusts of 80 km/h, it dropped up to 40 cm along the way creating total whiteouts and hip-height drifts on roads that soon became impassable. The blinding blizzard trapped hundreds of motorists along 30 km of Highway 402 between Sarnia and Strathroy. Authorities declared a state of emergency and quickly closed the highway and county roads and suspended traffic between Canada and the United States at the Blue Water Bridge. (Among the many impacts of the border closure and road shutdowns was a parts shortage for manufacturers in Ontario and Michigan, especially among auto makers.) Lines of stranded traffic seemed endless. Jackknifed trailers and buried cars littered both sides of the highway. In total, over 200 tractor trailers and 100 cars were stopped dead in walls of snow. For 300 isolated souls, their vehicles became the only shelter against zero visibility and in cold that felt like -25 with the wind chill. Several dozen stranded motorists trudged to emergency warming centres and farm houses along the highway. In a Herculean rescue effort, local residents, farmers, volunteers from snowmobile clubs, tow truck operators, 100 provincial police and 20 Canadian Forces military personnel worked to ensure the stranded were taken to safety or reunited with their vehicles by afternoon the next day. Unfortunately – despite this tremendous effort – one motorist died of exposure just 50 m from his car.

The potent storm waited until the end to unleash its greatest fury on already weather-beaten residents in eastern Quebec and the Maritime provinces. On December 13, the storm swept into the Maritimes and slowed right down over western New Brunswick. Re-supplied with energy and moisture from the Atlantic Gulf Stream, it drenched and buffeted Eastern Canada with humongous rainfalls and hurricane-like winds. On the first day, temperatures in New Brunswick soared to record highs around 15°C and the winds were powerful, gusting between 80 and 120 km/h, with even stronger winds across Cape Breton Island and in western Newfoundland and Labrador. Some buildings lost their roofs and hundreds of hydro poles were left leaning or severed, resulting in a loss of power to more than 100,000 residents. In the Annapolis Valley, some homes and businesses were without power for four days. High winds also forced restrictions on travel.  Copious amounts of rain, in excess of 175 mm in less than 24 hours (incredible for December), fell near St. Stephens, New Brunswick on ground already saturated from heavy rains in the fall. In Bayside 185 mm of rain fell, making it the wettest day in New Brunswick weather history. The previous record was 179.1 mm in Alma on April 1, 1962. In Fredericton, 105 mm of rain on December 13 was one of ten wettest days ever in the capital with records dating back to 1871. The flooding was worse in St. George and Bonny River on the south coast. Waters flowed out of the woods, across fields, into parking lots, onto road surfaces and into basements. Rescue teams used boats to bring residents to the nearest shelters in the middle of the night. There were countless road and bridge washouts, rail beds undermined and power disruptions. Between Saint John and Fredericton, over 100 roads were barricaded. In the wake of the torrential rains, officials issued flood warnings and states of emergency in St. Stephen and several other towns and villages. The spring season River Watch was put into effect – something practically unheard of in the fall – as water along the Saint John River exceeded flood levels by a metre.

On Cape Breton Island, torrential rains also took out roads, bridges and concrete culverts, and caused rock and mudslides. High winds and rain prompted the closure of roads along the famous Cabot Trail. By the middle of the month, 251.5 mm of rain had fallen at Sydney, which is three times the city’s normal accumulation for the first half of December.

In Quebec, the town of Gaspé was declared a flood zone after two days of driving rainfalls exceeding 200 mm – clearly the wettest two days in its history and one of the greatest rainfalls in the province’s history. Unbelievable rains fell in the first two weeks of December, almost six months worth or 357 mm, with half of the month still to come. It had already been the wettest fall on record, with a September-to-November total of 505 mm – 178 per cent of normal – and it was taking its toll on the ground and river courses. In the Gaspésie, rising waters forced hundreds of people to flee their homes. Along the coast, storm surges whipped up waves as high as 10 m. One resident said it was the worst flooding that he had seen since the 1970s. Roads were washed out and 500 homes were flooded in what a local official called a “catastrophic and historic” storm. The flooding caused millions of dollars in damage to local infrastructure and rendered some homes and businesses beyond repair. When water submerged railway tracks in the area, Via Rail suspended train service to and from Gaspé. Additionally, heavy rain north of Sept-Îles caused a landslide that affected the delivery of materials to Schefferville and Labrador.

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