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Spring blizzard lashes Atlantic region

Spring blizzard lashes Atlantic regionA person walks through a spring snow storm in Halifax Wednesday, March 26, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX - Across a large swath of Atlantic Canada, people who ventured outside Wednesday felt the cold sting of a massive spring blizzard that brought much of the region to a standstill.

Most schools and government offices were closed in the Maritimes, flights were cancelled and traffic along some of the busiest streets and highways was virtually non-existent amid knee-high drifts. Even the Confederation Bridge to P.E.I. was temporarily closed as powerful gusts howled across the Northumberland Strait.

In Nova Scotia, blackouts that first appeared on the province's southwest shore spread along the coast of the Bay of Fundy, into the Halifax area and then to parts of Cape Breton. At one point, more than 16,000 residents and businesses were without power.

Outages were also reported in New Brunswick, mainly in the St. Stephen area. In P.E.I., Maritime Electric was dealing with outages across the island when the weather turned so foul that the utility pulled its crews off the road.

The public transit service in Halifax parked its buses by late morning amid zero visibility.

And in the early evening, the Hillsborough Bridge, the main span on the western outskirts of Charlottetown, was closed due to whiteout conditions.

By early evening, the RCMP in western Newfoundland were reporting that the highways between Port aux Basques, Stephenville and Corner Brook were largely impassable due to blowing snow.

All ferry services in the region were suspended, including the ferries that link Nova Scotia with Newfoundland.

As the brawny storm reached its peak in Halifax early Wednesday afternoon, tiny shards of wind-whipped snow cut sideways around every corner.

"I don't mind as long as it all melts when it's done," a woman named Chantel said as she shielded her face from the icy wind. "It's probably the worst one I've been through."

In Fredericton, Melynda Jarrett displayed the typically grim resolve Maritimers need to make it through the prolonged winter weather.

"I am so depressed about this weather, but you just have to laugh otherwise you'll just curl up in a ball and start crying," she said as the snow swirled around her. "Hopefully this is the end of it."

A significant amount of snow was in the forecast for all four provinces, and the entire region was warned about potentially damaging winds and widespread whiteouts.

On Brier Island, off Nova Scotia's western edge, a peak gust hit 133 kilometres per hour early in the afternoon, Environment Canada said. In Grand Etang, on the notoriously windy west side of Cape Breton, a gust from the east reached 161 km/h at 4 p.m.

By 7 p.m., the wind was gusting at an incredible 186 kilometres per hour at Wreckhouse in western Newfoundland, another area famous for powerful winds that roar down nearby hills.

Sean Irvine, director of Nova Scotia's Emergency Management Office, said warnings about the storm that started last weekend helped people prepare.

"We do know that most people have taken our advice and have stayed off the road and most businesses are closed down and people are staying at home, which is good news," he said.

There were no reports of major damage, he said. However, Irvine warned that the storm was expected to linger over the region.

"It's not necessarily the single gust or the even an hour or two of wind that causes issues," he said. "What can occur is that trees can finally give way and start to break after a number of hours of exposure to heavy winds."

Tracey Talbot, a meteorologist at Environment Canada in Halifax, said the impact of the storm could not be properly assessed until late Thursday.

Barb Baillie, executive director of operations with Nova Scotia's Transportation Department, said salt trucks and plows would be working around the clock in two, 12-hour shifts.

"It's pretty well the same across the province — very low traffic," Baillie said.

"We are experiencing severe whiteouts. Plow operators are having to pull over for a few minutes just so they can see where they are going."

A section of the Trans-Canada Highway west of Truro, N.S., to Moncton, N.B., was closed Wednesday evening due to poor visibility.

In western Newfoundland, where strong winds are common, Environment Canada said gusts could peak at 160 km/h and even higher in the notorious Wreckhouse area. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador advised residents to avoid coastal areas.

Environment Canada also warned residents along Nova Scotia's coastline to stay away from the water and prepare for potentially damaging storm surges.

Irvine said the storm had moved slower than expected, which lessened the threat to communities along the Northumberland Strait.

"It's not as extensive a problem as we had expected," he said, adding he was still concerned about the province's South Shore.

— With files from Keith Doucette and Kevin Bissett

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