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Storm cripples Delta region
Heavy winds, blowing snow cut phone, Internet service in region for over three days

Andrew Livingstone
Northern News Services
Published Tuesday, March 1, 2011

BEAUFORT-DELTA - Communities in the Beaufort-Delta were without communication for three-and-a-half days after a heavy wind storm crippled the region, starting last Friday.

NNSL photo/graphic

Tuktoyaktuk hunkered down for two days, waiting for a storm to pass. The extreme weather crippled repair efforts to restore phone, Internet and cellphone service to the community and elsewhere in the Delta region. Winds reached 96 km/h in the community at times, causing whiteout conditions and stopping sewage and water trucks from making their regular rounds. - photo courtesy of Merven Gruben

A problem with a communications tower along the Dempster Highway cut long-distance phone service, Internet and cellphone use Friday morning at approximately 3:30 a.m. until repairs were completed at 1 p.m. Monday, leaving residents in the region without communication services, including debit and bank machine access.

The storm put a stranglehold on the region until Sunday morning, causing whiteout conditions due to strong, gusting winds -- reaching up to 70 km/h in Inuvik and 96 km/h in Tuktoyaktuk -- and shutting all road systems in and out of Inuvik and surrounding communities.

The problem was caused by a microwave tower at Stony Creek, located five hours from Inuvik on the Dempster Highway, according to Sunny Patch, spokesperson for NorthwesTel.

Repair efforts over the weekend were hindered by the storm, leaving NorthwesTel unable to get a repair crew to the site by helicopter due to the high winds. Patch said winds reached up to 190 km/h at the Stony Creek site, the equivalent to a category 3 hurricane.

"(The winds) caused ice to fall and break a piece of metal which cut a cable from the tower," she said, adding the crews were able to temporarily restore communications service by 1 p.m. Monday and fully repair the cable by approximately 3 p.m.

A lack of service in Fort Good Hope and Tulita continued through Monday afternoon, however. Fort Good Hope had no access to local or long-distance calls or Internet service, while in Tulita there was no Internet service. Hampered by bad weather, technicians were trying to reach the Chick Lake microwave tower, where they believed the problem originated.

In Tuktoyaktuk, RCMP Const. Lyndon Martin said the weather was persistent and the hamlet hunkered down to wait out the storm over the weekend. He said the community lost power a few times Saturday, but only for short periods. The biggest concern he mentioned on Saturday afternoon, when News/North spoke with him, was the inability for water and sewage trucks to get around the hamlet.

Over in Aklavik on Saturday, Northern Store manager Greg Wilson said the hamlet was lucky because the store's debit system is on satellite so there wasn't any problem with people being denied food. Yet he added that the other grocery store, Stanton's, was without debit systems since Friday morning.

He described the weather as "just ugly" and visibility in the community, due to the high winds and blowing snow, was zero.

Wilson said he hadn't heard of any power outages as of Saturday afternoon, but mentioned some minor damage had occurred around the community.

"A few houses will need re-shingling, but no major damage from what I can tell," he said.

Ben Cox, the weekend nurse-in-charge at Inuvik Regional Hospital, said staff were staying touch with health centres in the other Delta communities and with Yellowknife by satellite phone.

He said their emergency plan covers situations like this when phone services are cut. He also said they were monitoring the weather on an hourly basis, hoping for a big enough break in the storm to medevac a few patients to Yellowknife. If someone needed to come in from one of the communities they have an Aklak Air plane when the weather breaks, he added.

"We're not going to risk the lives of the pilots, the staff or the patients," he said. "They're pretty urgent, but we can treat (the patients) here unless something crazy happens and they need to go to Yellowknife."

Weather settled down Sunday and Cox said they were able to get the medevac flight out that afternoon.

"We're starting to get back on our feet now," he said.

Scheduled flights in the region were grounded most of the weekend due to the weather. First Air flights coming from Norman Wells via Yellowknife landed Friday afternoon, but a Canadian North flight was forced to turn around due to heavy winds, making it impossible for the plane to land.

Both ice roads to Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk were closed Friday morning due to drifting snow, high winds and poor visibility. The section of the Dempster Highway between Eagle Plains, Yukon, and Fort McPherson was closed Friday due to heavy drifting. The Department of Transportation warned of slippery conditions on the highway between McPherson and Inuvik.

Ice Wireless, a cellphone service provider in Inuvik that uses NorthwesTel's system, bypassed the problem by rerouting its cellular traffic to SSI Micro's main satellite uplink in Ottawa, restoring service to their customers, according to a press release from the company.

Yvonne Bilan-Wallace, spokesperson for Environment Canada, said temperatures in Inuvik reached 2.3 C on Friday, but did not break the historical daily record of 5.5 C, adding they lost some weekend weather data in other Delta communities, like Aklavik, due to the windy conditions.

Bilan-Wallace said the Delta region is in for abnormally low temperatures for this time of year.

"A ridge of high pressure is building in the area and really below normal temperatures are expected for some time," she said.

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