Record snowfall for P.E.I. named The Guardian's news story of the year

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Last winter wasn't just one for the P.E.I. history books, it was a story the world was talking about.

The Guardian's News Story of the Year for 2015 is the record snowfall.

When it was all over, a total of 551 centimetres (more than 18 feet) was measured by Environment Canada at the Charlottetown Airport, beating the old record of 539 centimetres set in 1971-72.

Summerside was hit with 412.2 centimetres, beating the old record set in 1952, although Environment Canada meteorologist Linda Libby thinks the Prince County city got more than that.

Just to be clear, that's snowfall, not snow on ground.

And most of it hit in February and March.

Summerside resident Marcel Landry said not only is it a winter he'll never forget, it's one he's not being allowed to forget.

Landry and his fiance Stephanie Collicutt were thrust into the international spotlight after spending 10 hours digging to find their parked cars in the driveway on Notre Dame Street and another week by the time they had actually excavated them, with help from friends.

They ended up carving out a 25-foot path with snow that was six feet high in some places.

RELATED: A winter for the ages

Not only did the P.E.I. media come calling, but reporters were calling from all over the country.

Good Morning America in the United States called to talk to Landry and even CNN featured the story.

"It has blown me away,'' Landry said. "Strangers stop on the side of the road, roll down their window. I'm still getting phone calls. Someone did a book about it.''

He remembers it well.

It was Valentine's Day weekend.

The couple planned on going away, deciding at the last minute to cancel when they heard there was a storm coming.

That storm hit much of the province with a whopping 84 centimetres.

"We decided to stay (home) and thank God we did. I can't imagine what kind of trouble we would have been in. We would not have been able to get home for at least a week.''

Darren Chaisson, director of highway maintenance for the province, said no one among his staff or the people who drive the snowplows has ever seen anything like that winter.

"I haven't heard one person say they've experienced a winter like it,'' Chaisson said.

"We had 15 feet of snow fall within a two-month period and that is unbelievable. It was just unrelenting. You were dealing with two or three major storms a week.''

It just kept piling up.

RELATED: It’s official! 2014-15 P.E.I.'s snowiest winter on record

Snowplow drivers dealt with eight- to 10-foot banks.

Many were forced to ram massive walls of snow, back up and take another run at it, over and over again.

"Staff, mechanics and operators logged an unbelievable amount of hours. It really took a toll on them.''

It also pushed equipment to the limit.

The provincial government invested close to $4 million over the summer on snowplow and blower gear.

"We'd have years when our blowers would be out five to 10 days over the course of the winter. (Last winter) they were out every day over two months. We had blowers that, by the end of winter, we had to replace.''

The province also wrote cheques totalling more than $1 million to help out municipal governments in Charlottetown and Summerside.

The City of Charlottetown spent about $1 million alone.

That's $500,000 it has been spending every year for the past five years to upgrade its fleet and another $500,000 just to repair and replace equipment that broke down due to the strain in 2015.

"That one winter would be like three or four winters (combined) for our equipment,'' said Coun. Terry Bernard, chairman of Charlottetown's public works committee. "We've (since) adjusted the contracts so now our contracts call for machinery no older than five years.''

Union crews handle streets between Belvedere Avenue and the waterfront (an approximation) while contractors handle the rest.

"They worked tirelessly. They never quit,'' Bernard said. "They put in the hours and never stopped.''

The new equipment in Charlottetown should make a difference.

The old blowers would fill a dump truck with snow in one minute and 15 seconds. The new blowers will do the same job in 15 to 18 seconds.

"You're filling five to six more trucks quicker than before.''

Winter is even hard on the people who dish out the information.

Libby says she did so much shovelling around her house that she hurt her arm and it didn't stop hurting until August.

"There were people in hospital who hurt themselves shovelling,'' she said, noting that she knew one nurse who walked to a shift at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in snowshoes.

Libby is well aware that many Islanders are hoping the winter of 2015-16 is much more traditional.

Landry said when it comes to winter, there's not much anyone can do but grin and bear it.

He jokes that he might have special T-shirts made up about the historic P.E.I. winter.

"I think they'll say, 'Life is like a tunnel. Dig it'.''

dstewart@theguardian.pe.ca

Twitter.com/DveStewart

Organizations: Environment Canada, News Story, Charlottetown Airport Queen Elizabeth Hospital

Geographic location: Summerside, Prince, Charlottetown Notre Dame Street United States Belvedere Avenue

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