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"Soldiers Help City Dig Out After Another Snowfall"


By Nicolaas van Rijn and Jim Rankin
Toronto Star Staff Reporters

Toronto is a virtual ghost town today, all but shut down by the third major winter storm to wallop southern Ontario in a 14-day period.

For the first time in recent memory, the Canadian military has been called in to help the economic heart of the country dig out from a business-busting dump of snow. Over 125 trucks carrying 438 soldiers re-opened CFB Downsview in North York as base of operations.

Soldiers Helping Out
Soldiers Helping Out
Mayor Mel Lastman vowed to keep Toronto open for business, even though the storm prompted hundreds of businesses to scale back operations today - or close up completely - and forced education officials to keep all of Toronto's public and Catholic schools closed.

With no alternate provision for day care, that left thousands of parents with no alternative but to stay home to look after their children. They are expected to be joined by hundreds of thousands of others who decided not to leave home today to work, shop or meet a friend for lunch.

That left the city's downtown core strangely deserted, but far from silent.

From east to west, north to south, the air this morning is alive with the scraping sounds of snowplows, the roar of snowblowers and the clang of snow shovels as residents struggle to come out from under past accumulations and some 25 centimetres - nearly 10 inches - of snow that was expected from the latest storm to sweep up from the United States.

And we can look forward to more snow tomorrow, Monday and Tuesday, forecasters warn.

"It's almost like it's stalking us," senior Environment Canada climatologist David Phillips said of the weather since January 2. "It's got southern Ontario in its bull's eye, and it is tracking storm after storm like bowling balls on a bowling rack."

Bison Armoured Peraonnel Carrier
CAF Bison
Armoured Personnel Carrier
Lastman, remaining defiant, refused to "close" the city - sort of.

While he stopped short of ordering people to stay home, the mayor pleaded for common sense, asking companies to be careful in determining just who should come to work today.

"I am urging companies in non-essential services to please allow people to not come to work," Lastman said.

But "we will not allow this city to be closed down," he vowed.

"Whatever money is necessary, that money will be spent. . . . We've already spent $14 million. Money has not been a question."

Still, deputy mayor Case Ootes said, "government is doing what it can to encourage people to stay at home." While the storm "is not a disaster," Ootes said, "we want to be prepared for the worst."

Since the beginning of the year, Toronto been whacked by three major storms that have brought the city's total snowfall for the month to about 110 centimetres. That's just short of the record 111 centimetres, or 43 inches, recorded in 1871 - a time known as the "Little Ice Age."

Bison Patrolling the Streets
CN Tower
Bison Patrolling the Streets
So far, during the first two weeks of 1999, we've had more snow than in all of 1998.

"I don't want to take any chances," an embattled Lastman said yesterday, defending his decision to call in the Canadian army, which has pitched hundreds of soldiers and their equipment into a full-scale battle against the snow.

"I don't want to risk lives. The army is here to help us get rid of that snow, help us clear those catch basins, because it's going to get warmer.

"When the snow melts, I want to make sure those catch basins are not frozen. I don't want people getting flooded basements."

For now, flooded basements are at the bottom of anyone's list of things to worry about.

Since it began around noon yesterday, the latest storm has affected virtually every one of the 7.1 million people living in a region stretching from Niagara Falls to Oshawa, and from Barrie south to Lake Ontario.

The storm:
  • Forced both the Toronto public and Catholic school boards to close every school in the city. It's the first time since 1968 that Toronto's public schools have been closed. It's believed to also be the first time that weather has forced all of Toronto's public and Catholic schools to close at the same time.

    All of Peel Region's public and Catholic schools will be closed today. Officials in York Region and other areas said they would decide this morning on what action to take, and asked parents to listen to local radio and television broadcasts for updates.

    The University of Toronto closed its doors today, as did Ryerson Polytechnic University, York University, Humber College, Seneca College and the Ontario College of Art. Other post-secondary institutions were to decide this morning whether to open.

  • Prompted Toronto to appeal for contractors to call 397-7220 if they have additional equipment, like trucks with plows, snowblowers and front-end loaders, that the city can rent.

    BV206 All-terrain People Mover
    CAF BV206
    All-terrain People Mover
    Private contractors are already flooding in. In an eerie echo of reaction to last year's devastating ice storm in Eastern Canada, more than 250 workers and their equipment have already poured into Toronto from London, Bracebridge, Ottawa and Montreal.

  • Led to scaled-back operations and elective procedures in hospitals across Greater Toronto. Officials, citing public safety, say it's just too dangerous to ask non-essential staff and patients requiring elective procedures to come in.

  • Brought the Canadian military to Toronto in a role that is becoming oddly familiar. The same soldiers who helped dam Winnipeg against raging floodwaters in 1997 and who rescued much of eastern Ontario and Quebec from last January's ice storm, are now here to help.

    The soldiers, from the Royal Canadian Dragoons, a tank regiment stationed at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa northwest of Ottawa, have also served in war-torn Bosnia.

    They arrived armed with shovels, snowshoes, snowmobiles, generators, Bison armoured personnel carriers, huge all-terrain trucks and about a week's worth of clothes.

    "If we're asked to dig people out, if we're asked to take people to the hospital . . . we will," said Brigadier-General Walter Holmes.

    For now, the only visible sign of military involvement here are four Bisons, deployed to help Toronto Ambulance. The all-terrain vehicles are each staffed by military personnel and two paramedics, for use in hard-to-access neighbourhoods.

    Ottawa has some 800 additional soldiers standing by if the city asks for more help.

  • Filled many of Toronto's hotels, especially those in the downtown core. As the storm swept in yesterday, companies concerned about the ability of their workers to make it home through the snow began booking up blocks of rooms, quickly leading to a room shortage.

    CFB Downsview Re-opened
    Unloading Equipment
    CFB Downsview Re-opened
  • Extended Toronto's extreme cold weather alert, which makes additional resources available to keep Toronto's homeless out of the cold. For the few diehards who insisted on spending the night outdoors, police and street patrol counsellors handed out gloves, hats, sleeping bags and hot food and beverages.

    To make additional room available, military officials made the Moss Park Armoury, at Jarvis and Queen St. E., a "warming centre" for homeless people who don't want to go to shelters.

  • Prompted the province to open its emergency operations centre, last used to help co-ordinate response to last January's ice storm.

    Solicitor-General Bob Runciman, noting city officials just have to ask for provincial help, said resources are "at their beck and call. All they have to do is ask."

    Dr. James Young, Ontario's assistant deputy minister in charge of public safety, said Toronto's preparedness may have suffered because "over the last decade or so, there may have been a sense that Toronto wasn't going to face this kind of storm, and that may have had an impact."

  • Led city officials to open the first and third floors of Metro Hall for anyone stranded downtown, and provide hot coffee and sandwiches.

  • Kept the Toronto Transit Commission fighting to keep its trains, streetcars and buses running. While schedules were tossed out the window, transit workers focused on providing some service on most routes.

    "We're prepared to fight Mother Nature," said the TTC's Marilyn Bolton. "God, she's strong. And they say women don't have power."

    In an echo of Wednesday's helplessness against the raging weather, open-cut sections of the subway's eastern and western extremities, the Spadina subway line and the Scarborough Rapid Transit line were shut down yesterday.

    Side Streets Impassable
    Side Streets Impassable
    Last night, the TTC was still experiencing problems. Trains going both north and south were not stopping at the Rosedale station, and trains going north were not stopping at Davisville station.

  • Forced GO Transit to struggle to keep even a minimal level of service operating. Forgetting about schedules, bus drivers and train engineers did their level best just to get through on snow-clogged highways and railway tracks.

    Frozen switches, which shut down GO's trains for part of Wednesday, were a problem again yesterday, forcing service to be suspended during the midday period.

    "I'll take a lot of comfort in that," said Oakville resident Mary Stoddart as she watched a notice board for commuter trains change from "Cancelled" to "Please wait here."

See also
Canadian Armed Forces
Canadian Army
Royal Canadian Navy
Royal Canadian Air Force
Disaster Assistance Response Team
Joint Task Force 2
Communications Security Establishment

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Copyright Craig I.W. Marlatt