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Storms in Atlantic Canada raise spring flooding fears

Jean Richard clears snow from his car at his ski cottage in Waterford, NB on Monday, December 27, 2010. Most of New Brunswick was hit with heavy snow that began falling early Monday morning.

David Smith/The Canadian Press/David Smith/The Canadian Press

The massive storm that blanketed the U.S. Eastern Seaboard struck a lesser blow in Atlantic Canada, but the Maritimes were at a special disadvantage: a series of "weather bombs" that had already produced heavy flooding and winds before the snow began to fly.

The snowstorm that moved through Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island Monday is "the kind of thing that you would have expected in Canada in the wintertime," David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada, said. But the latest storm is the "psychological downer" following three rainstorms that hammered Atlantic Canada with heavy winds over the past month, causing millions of dollars in damage, Mr. Phillips said.

"I think in many ways this one was far worse than it normally would have been because of the parade of storms we saw earlier," he said. "You're more vulnerable in a way."

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Those storms were more unusual than the most recent one, he said, causing overall precipitation to reach abnormally high levels in some regions. Compounded by coming winter snow, Mr. Phillips said places like New Brunswick could be in for an even more "disastrous" spring flood season.

"All that water has to eventually leave," he said. "The rivers and lakes can't take any more."

The St. Stephen region of New Brunswick received 185 millimetres of rain, Mr. Phillips said - the highest in its history. And in Bathurst, N.B., one of the province's snowier regions, Mr. Phillips said snowfall levels are below average while total precipitation is well above normal, with the region seeing its third-wettest fall season in recorded history. December has only continued that trend, he said.

While the region usually experiences between four and six storms a winter, Mr. Phillips said he's hesitant to call the four-storm month a record breaker. "The good news is that one stormy month does not a season make," he said.

Storm warnings shifted Tuesday to affect the Gaspésie region in Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador, through Wednesday, with up to 45 centimetres of snow and heavy winds expected. But Mr. Phillips said the current storm won't last much longer, with weather expected to clear Thursday. "The storm is winded, I guess. It's exhausted," he said.

Ethel Hache, who lives in Grand Étang on the northeast coast of Nova Scotia, said Tuesday that rain the past four days has caused significant flood damage in her area. "We're in the mud," Ms. Hache said. "We've lost bridges and roads and everything."

She said she's been luckier than neighbours whose cellars have been flooded. And despite winds of nearly 150 kilometres an hour, Ms. Hache said they're better off with rain than snow. At least they can still get out their front doors. "Some people are more miserable than we are," she said. "Oh yes, we've seen worse, believe me."

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In the Annapolis Valley, heavily affected by the onslaught of recent storms, Middleton, N.S. resident Al Durdle said his house lost power on Monday for nine hours. On Tuesday afternoon, he said gusts up to 100 km/hr had knocked trees across roads and onto nearby homes.

"You can just hear it roaring," he said. "A lot of our neighbours, they lost some old, huge trees."

He said those downed trees are just adding to the pile crews are still cleaning as a result of last week's wind and rain. But still, Mr. Durdle said it's not the worst winter he's seen in his 23 years in Middleton. It certainly wasn't the whitest. "I've seen more snow," he said. "I don't think I've seen quite so much wind."

Power outages had largely been resolved Tuesday evening. Power was restored to more than 1,500 customers in Nova Scotia Tuesday afternoon after as many as 6,000 reported outages Monday, with winds causing new outages Tuesday morning.

Wind warnings in effect for Prince County, PEI, were cancelled Tuesday, with outages down to 280 customers from 2,200 Tuesday morning, Maritime Electric said.

New Brunswick, which was the hardest hit by the most recent storm, still had 3,000 customers without power Tuesday evening. Bouctouche, Miramichi and Sussex regions were the hardest hit. At the storm's peak on Monday, as many as 20,000 people were without power in the province.

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In New York, some residents played in a snowy Times Square, while others worked to dig out their cars.

The snow was a major headache for transportation, with major delays in ground traffic in the United States and hundreds of flights cancelled. New York's LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports and Newark's Liberty were forced to close Monday, while Toronto's Pearson had more than 200 grounded flights.

On Tuesday evening, 181 flights out of Toronto were still cancelled, but almost all Wednesday flights were scheduled to leave on time. Meanwhile, New York's airports were still experiencing significant delays for domestic and international flights Tuesday.

At JFK, passengers reportedly waited for as many as 12 hours to deplane after their Cathay Pacific flights from Vancouver were forced to sit on the tarmac until a gate was available.

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