Electricity is returning to many Winnipeg customers affected by an intense winter storm, but Manitoba Hydro says it can't even estimate how long it will be before power is restored to thousands of people as the weather system moves north and west.

Officials in Portage la Prairie, about 90 kilometres west of Winnipeg, tweeted that the city's sewage lift stations were operating on backup power and that residents shouldn't flush their toilets — at all.

"We are trying to avoid the possibility of sewer backups into people's homes," the tweet said.

Manitoba Hydro said that by late Saturday morning, nearly 53,000 customers, including 7,000 in the capital, were without electricity.

Spokesman Scott Powell said in a news release that as the storm system tracked through Portage la Prairie, the Interlake region and farther north, the amount of snow has meant crews are having trouble assessing how much damage has been done, let alone beginning to fix it.

Powell said there are reports of snowdrifts close to two-and-a-half metres high in a band running south from Lake Manitoba towards Morden. He said in some cases they're dealing with broken transmission towers, which he stresses are not quick fixes.

In the Portage la Prairie area, Powell says crews are having difficulty getting to the lines which supply terminal stations, and that people should prepare to be without power for "an extended period."

The city said the Trans-Canada Highway, which runs through the community, remained closed Saturday.

"We understand how frustrating it is to be without electricity, especially when we can't even give you an estimate on how long it might take to restore," Powell said in the news release.

Still, Powell thanked customers for the support the utility has received through social media, which he said is appreciated by staff who are working long hours in tough conditions.

In Winnipeg, where at one point Manitoba Hydro said Friday that more than 26,000 customers had no power, city officials continued to remind people to avoid non-essential travel and to keep clear of downed power lines.

By late Saturday morning, the city said there were seven intersections where traffic signals were dark. City-run recreation facilities and libraries remained closed.

The city reported that it had received nearly 2,000 calls to its 311 line about fallen trees and branches.

The province, meanwhile, warned that river levels have started to rise in some southern areas of Manitoba due to the rain-snow mix. It said that could mean localized flooding in low-lying areas as temperatures are forecast to fluctuate between freezing and 4 C.

"Hundreds of provincial, municipal and utilities workers are responding to this severe weather event," Deputy Premier Heather Stefanson said in a statement.

"Provincial highways crews are assisting Manitoba Hydro and other utilities to gain access to their storm-affected lines and equipment."

The province asked people to restrict non-essential travel in order to facilitate snow-clearing for emergency response. People were also asked to call 911 about downed power lines, and to be cautious and ensure proper ventilation when using alternative combustible heat sources

Environment Canada has ended winter storm warnings that were in effect for much of southern Manitoba, but they remained in place in the province's southwest corner on Saturday afternoon. Snowfall warnings are also in effect across the provincial boundary in southeastern Saskatchewan.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 12, 2019

Keep reading