PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE — The lights are on in the city, but not many places surrounding it — unless you have a generator.
Where normally there would be wooden poles and hydro lines running parallel to highways and side roads in the rural areas at all points of the compass outside Portage la Prairie, there are instead an unknown number of snapped, shattered, and fallen poles, lying in snow-covered fields and ditches.
"I don’t think there’s anybody with any power outside Portage," Josh MacDonald said Tuesday, as he worked at his father's farm just off the highway between Portage and the Delta Marsh. "It has been rough around here. My cousin had many poles go down to his place.
"It’s not a good time to be the last one on the road."
It is just how life has been in many areas of southern Manitoba since rain, then heavy, dense snow, and finally high winds hit the province last Thursday and into the long weekend.
Portage area residents said their electricity went out Thursday afternoon or evening, or sometime Friday.
Manitoba Hydro crews began fanning out to fix the outages almost right away, but with so many, all at once, officials say it will be days and up to almost two weeks before everyone is restored.
Hard-at-work crews had no time to talk Tuesday, as they were busy planting new poles, while others snipped and strung wires, and others still ventured into fields to salvage wire and other parts.
Manitoba Hydro spokesman Bruce Owen said the area north of Portage la Prairie is just one example.
"Initially, we estimated 1,000 poles had split — now, it is 2,000," Owen said. "Our transmission system is down there. We are having to rebuild it."
It happened slowly Tuesday. While they were just statistics on a Hydro website, on the ground, it meant more Manitobans were seeing the lights come on and refrigerators, freezers, and furnaces come to life.
At noon, there were 809 outages reported in the province, with 13,639 customers without power.
By 1 p.m., it had dropped to 780 outages and 13,451 customers.
By 5 p.m., it was 601 outages and 12,471 customers.
Owen said Hydro can’t yet say how much it will cost to fix and replace the southern Manitoba system.
For the next three weeks, all Hydro workers deemed essential have had previously scheduled vacations cancelled and will be reimbursed for any out-of-pocket expenses already spent, Owen said.
Many Portage la Prairie residents already had a bit of an unscheduled vacation.
Standing behind the counter at Jimmy’s Submarine and Dairy Delight, Trish Swain said the restaurant's power went out Friday at about 5 p.m., and didn’t come on again until Monday at 9 a.m.
But it still couldn’t reopen.
"You couldn’t start using the toilets and the water until 7 p.m.," Swain said. "We weren’t able to open until this (Tuesday) morning. It has been pretty rough, but it could have been worse.
"It could have been -20 or -30 (C)."
Swain said the restaurant did have to throw out meat that had thawed in the freezer.
"It was the same with people at home," she said. "People were literally driving around giving food to people who had a barbecue. People were even cooking on fire pits.
"It was survival mode — it was like something you only see in movies."
A few blocks over, Mitch Houle and Anthony Straight were part of a crew picking up fallen tree branches and limbs and piling them on a trailer.
"This is our fourth load today," Houle said. "We’ll be doing this for at least a week."
Straight added: "We were just cutting grass last week."
Dave Vanstone, who owned Vanstone Nurseries north of Portage before his son, Owen, took it over, said if the power had to go out for days, early October is a good time for the nursery.
"We don’t have plants in the greenhouse," he said.
"I’ve been here for 37 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this before. But we have been very impressed with the Hydro service."
Later Tuesday, the City of Portage la Prairie announced on Twitter it had partnered with the Southport Aerospace Centre to organize a base camp for more than 200 hydro employees from Saskatchewan, Ontario and the United States.
"They will start arriving tomorrow and will be working for the next two weeks," the city tweeted. "We welcome them to Portage and thank them for their support."
So impressed that Vanstone, who is putting the final touches on a new sign board for the River Road Gospel Hall, said the first message will be "Thank you Manitoba Hydro — welcome neighbouring utilities."
Meanwhile, MacDonald said his family has been helping neighbours fill jerry cans of gasoline at their farm to pour into their generators.
"Then I went to fill ours, and it was empty," he said with a laugh. "At least it’s wasn’t -30."
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.
Phil Hossack’s been around the block more than once in this business.
Updated on Tuesday, October 15, 2019 at 8:45 PM CDT: Adds a base camp will be set up for extra workers.