OTTAWA (Reuters) - Much of eastern and central Canada was digging out on Monday after a massive storm dumped up to 50 cm (20 inches) of snow in places, shocking Canadians who had become accustomed to milder winters.
The storm caused hundreds of traffic accidents and virtually shut down major airports. One woman died after being hit by a snow plow as she stood beside her family van. Her two young daughters inside the van were unharmed.
The storm swept up from the United States late on Saturday and unloaded 26 cm of snow on Toronto -- with the occasional clap of thunder thrown in for good measure -- before moving on to the rest of Ontario and then east to Quebec.
"And winter hasn't even started yet!" said the main front page head line of Montreal's La Presse daily. Winter officially starts this Saturday.
Ottawa received 32 cm of snow on Sunday, a one-day record for December. Last year at this time, the capital was green, with temperatures well above freezing.
The last two winters have been among the mildest on record. Late last month, Environment Canada said this winter was likely to be much harsher, a warning few seemed to take seriously.
"We seem to be out of practice. It's amazing what a couple of warm winters will do," said David Phillips, a climatologist at Environment Canada who said the storm was a dress rehearsal of what this winter would be like.
"We have that reputation we like to stroke, the idea that we are the winter weather people. And yet you would sense out there already now that Canadians are weather-weary and yet winter hasn't even started yet," he told Reuters.
Toronto, which prompted widespread derision by calling in the army in January 1999 to help clear the snow, has had 54 cm of snow so far. Last year's total was just 60 cm.
Dozens of flights at Toronto's Pearson Airport, the largest in the country, were canceled.
"There was a feeling of absolute chaos filling the place. At one point I found myself in line, waiting behind a group of drunk, crying people trying to reschedule flights," a senior government official told Reuters.
Exasperated Ontario police said many drivers ignored advice to stay at home. And those that ventured out often appeared to have forgotten how to handle a vehicle in winter.
"People are driving along and it doesn't look too bad and the next thing you know, you're exceeding the speed limit ... and in the ditch you go, or into the median, or into the wall, or into another car. Every year it's the same thing," said Constable Kevin Davidson of the Ontario Provincial Police.
"I do suspect that if this storm had been today, on Monday ... the number of collisions would have been considerably higher," he told Reuters.
The cold even caused problems in the Pacific province of British Columbia, where a two-km (1.2 mile) long ice block formed at the junction of two rivers in the town of Prince George.
Phillips said it was too early to say whether the initial forecast of a frostier winter overall would hold out. But he had a prediction likely to cheer most children.
"The thing that looks fairly safe is that apart from Victoria and Vancouver (on the Pacific coast) ... it looks like the entire country will have a white Christmas," he said.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Bernadette Baum