03/10/2015 01:55 EDT | Updated 05/10/2015 05:59 EDT

Massive snowfalls, early spring ice drive up winter costs in Atlantic Canada

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - From massive snowfalls that blocked business districts to early spring ice wreaking havoc with ferry travel, the costs of a brutal winter are adding up in Atlantic Canada.

Kevin Rice can attest that it's no ordinary season. He oversees road and sidewalk clearing in Saint John, N.B., frozen ground zero for one of the worst winters anyone can recall.

"That's the multimillion-dollar question," he said with a weary laugh when asked just how badly the city's usual $5.7-million snow budget is blown.

Over the last five years about 2,700 truckloads were hauled away on average each winter, said Rice, deputy commissioner of transportation and environment service for Saint John.

This year?

"To date, about 33,000," Rice said. "Talking to people that have lived in Saint John for many, many years, I haven't heard from anybody who can remember a winter like this. It has been a major challenge."

The city on average has had about 216 centimetres of snow a year over the last decade, he added.

This winter, crews have worked around the clock since Jan. 26 when the first of a rapid-fire series of storms tracking northeasterly over the Gulf of St. Lawrence dumped 320 centimetres in just over a month. A local state of emergency called Feb. 4 lasted a week to help clear what some have dubbed "snow-pocalypse."

Extra costs for overtime, fuel and reinforcements are still being calculated, Rice said.

Dale Foote, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada, said parts of P.E.I., western Newfoundland and southeastern Labrador have also been buried.

Snowfall in Charlottetown from October to the end of February was 384 centimetres instead of the typical 218 centimetres, he said.

For Cow Head, N.L., a volunteer weather observer reported 548 centimetres compared to the usual 260, Foote added.

Weather chaos has meant a slow start to the year for many retailers that don't offer winter-related gear, said David Duplisea, CEO of the Chamber representing more than 1,000 businesses in the Saint John area.

"We're hardy people," he said. "We don't get all that upset when we get volumes of snow like this but there has been an effect, for sure."

Out on the water, thick ice has moved in early and is now adding to severe weather delays racked up earlier this winter, said Darrell Mercer, spokesman for the Marine Atlantic ferry service between Sydney, N.S., and Port aux Basques, N.L.

"Every time we miss a crossing or are delayed, it backs everything up."

Mercer said dozens of crossings have been affected since January, with an economic impact that's tough to estimate. Marine Atlantic vessels are a vital commercial link for the island of Newfoundland, bringing everything from fresh produce to medical supplies.

"We do our best, but of course operating in the North Atlantic is one of the most challenging environments in the world," he said.

Nova Scotia's marine waters normally stay above freezing most winters, but the province's Fisheries Department said this season's chill drove temperatures to -0.7 Celsius, at which point fish blood freezes. As a result, three aquaculture sites reported fish deaths, the department said.

Back in Saint John, Rice knows his work won't end with winter.

"When all this is over, we're going to get ready for street sweeping, potholes and flooding. I'm hoping, by maybe June or July, I might be able to take a breather."

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