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With post-tropical storm Fiona taking its place as one of the biggest catastrophic events in Atlantic Canada history, communities began to pick up the pieces while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau connected the storm to climate-induced mayhem.
Trudeau was in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island Tuesday to tour the extensive damage and pledge better ways to build more resilient infrastructure, The Canadian Press reports. In Toronto, the DBRS Morningstar credit rating agency projected insured losses from the storm as high as C$700 million, even after insurance companies refuse to cover their customers’ flood damage.
“Climate change is worsening the region’s risk to major storms like Hurricane Fiona,” CP says. “DBRS Morningstar says insurers may be more cautious when assessing risk in the region, likely raising premiums to cover the rising costs of payouts.”
On Saturday morning, Fiona left a trail of destruction across a wide swath of Atlantic Canada, stretching from Nova Scotia’s eastern mainland to Cape Breton, PEI, and southwestern Newfoundland. The record-breaking storm is being blamed for two deaths, one in Newfoundland and Labrador and the other in Nova Scotia.
Power was knocked out, scores of homes were flattened, roads were washed out, and the resulting cleanup is expected to take months if not years to complete. At the height of the storm, 415,000 Nova Scotia homes and businesses were in the dark, including 210,000 in the Halifax region and 65,000 in Cape Breton. By late Tuesday afternoon, more than 180,000 Atlantic Canadian homes and businesses were still without electricity, more than 122,000 of them in Nova Scotia and about 61,000 in PEI.
Schools and government offices remained closed in all of PEI and much of Nova Scotia, and PEI announced its public schools will remain closed until at least Monday.
“The federal government is here as a partner,” Trudeau said in Stanley Bridge, PEI. “We were working in advance of the storm to prepare for the worst, and the worst happened. But at the same time, we’ve heard tremendous stories of resilience.”
In Ottawa, Defence Minister Anita Anand confirmed there were about 300 military members assisting with recovery efforts in Atlantic Canada, with Nova Scotia, PEI, and Newfoundland each getting 100 troops, CP writes. Anand said the military was mobilizing another 150 troops in Nova Scotia and 150 for Newfoundland.
“They’re helping to move people away from damaged and high-risk homes, and they’re being as helpful as possible,” Anand said.
Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said 13 Indigenous communities had been affected by the storm, and local authorities are now scrambling to ensure they have enough food and fuel. “They are focused as well on the recovery of their fishing supplies and boats, in particular, as it relates to their ongoing livelihood,” Hajdu said.
Living Day by Day ‘in Disbelief’
In Burnt Islands, Newfoundland and Labrador, Paula Keeping pointed to the window that was once her son’s bedroom.
It lay on top of the crumpled remains of her former house, a mess of wood siding and household items in the middle of a road, CP writes. The debris was piled metres away from where the house stood last week before Fiona blasted the southwestern Newfoundland community.
“I figure my kitchen is out where my porch is too,” she said. “It’s devastating. Just in disbelief.”
Keeping said she was living day by day and still processing the loss of the house where she raised her family.
Her husband, who was away when the storm hit, and their grown children were on the way back to see the scene first-hand, but there was some urgency behind the cleanup. Keeping’s home and others along her street that faced the rocky coast were knocked into the path of a now washed-out road.
Officials in the community said three people living in one home behind the damaged street were still stranded as of Tuesday, with efforts under way to help them get out.
Earlier this week, provincial and federal responders were assessing the situation along Newfoundland’s southwestern coast, where the town of Port aux Basques was also hit hard with property loss and one death. That was after Fiona swept through with powerful waves and storm surges on a scale that lifelong residents said they had never witnessed before.
In Burnt Islands, local contractors brought in heavy machinery to aid the recovery, lifting large chunks of road and other debris. Other people used tools and their hands, while children rode bicycles and played outside amid the wreckage.
Jeremy Pope was using an excavator to sift through the remains of a damaged fishing stage by the town’s harbour. Several of the structures were almost fully submerged and others appeared shattered, with their contents floating in the water.
It’s an overwhelming job, the likes of which Pope said he hasn’t tackled before. “We only are just getting started,” he said during a short break from the work. “Do what we can do for now and try to get started, try to get a plan.”
The side of town with the small craft harbour saw less severe damage overall, but some people were still sorting through their damaged homes amid the wind and wet weather on Tuesday.
Jamie King was wading with a neighbour through the pile of debris spilling from the torn-away wall of the house he grew up in, trying to salvage what he could and prevent more damage before bad weather hits again.
He became emotional standing in front of the destruction, running through questions about insurance coverage, future income and where he and his family would stay.
“I lost everything,” he said. “I don’t know what to do or where to go.”
The weather and lack of cell service in the community have made recovery work more difficult, King said. While he’d like to be out helping in his capacity as a fire brigade member, his personal losses have taken up his time and energy.
Sharon King, his sister-in-law, was helping him out. Her own home was largely untouched, but seeing her town destroyed by the storm has been like a “nightmare” that’s brought her to tears, she said.
“I’m out just doing what I can for everybody else … whether it’s a phone call, a hug, anything else,” she said. “We’re a small community, but we’re all joined together as one.”
‘You Work All Your Life. In An Hour, It’s Gone
In Rose Blanche-Harbour Le Cou, Newfoundland and Labrador, colourful fishing stages bobbed in the water Tuesday as Cliff Bateman watched from his property.
Days earlier, the picturesque buildings that are used to land and process fish were upright before post-tropical storm Fiona swept them into the ocean by the southwestern Newfoundland town, CP reports.
Bateman watched the storm toss them through the water.
“It’s a big loss, I tell you that,” he said from inside his kitchen. The now-retired fisherman said he stored a priceless accumulation of gear and history inside the structures that were passed down through his family, some built over 100 years ago.
“You work all your life for it, and in an hour, everything gone.”
Fiona’s path of destruction through Atlantic Canada heavily damaged the fishing industry and communities along Newfoundland’s southwestern coast have not been spared. Fishers and property owners are awaiting word about possible government assistance and are left wondering whether it will be enough to fill the gaps.
On top of personal gear, a building shared between fishers for their work and storage of their catches was badly damaged, said Burnt Islands resident Troy Hardy. He expects people will be scrambling to salvage and source equipment before next spring’s seasons.
“It’s a big impact for the fish harvesters, that’s for sure,” Hardy told CP. “It’s very worrisome.”
PEI Landscape ‘Completely Changed’
In Dalvay by the Sea, Prince Edward Island, the scale of sand dune erosion in Prince Edward Island National Park is “shocking” and has dramatically changed the landscape of some beaches, Parks Canada says. Jennifer Stewart, external relations manager with Parks Canada in P.E.I., told CP the storm caused the most severe coastal erosion she’s seen since she began her career in 2000.
The impact is particularly significant at Dalvay Beach, she said, where dune systems used to block the view of the water from the nearby roadway.
“There was a dune system. It’s completely gone, and now the road is eroding away,” Stewart told the news agency.
“It is shocking. It completely changed the look of the landscape in this area.”
Stewart said the loss of dunes is troubling because they act as a natural barrier in protecting shoreline from the impact of storms and ocean swells.
“Luckily, coastal ecosystems are very dynamic,” Stewart said. As sediment is washed back on the beach, vegetation, such as marram grass, will catch the sand to develop new dunes.
“As this happens, marram grass will spread its roots under the surface of the sand, creating a living web to hold the sand in place,” she said.
But while the sand dunes are likely to reform, this process takes years, Stewart said. In order to encourage growth, she said, people should avoid the area where the dunes were to avoid disturbing the vegetation.
Another victim of erosion caused by Fiona was the frequently photographed sea-stack rock formation known as the Teacup Rock at Thunder Cove Beach.
Bruce Stewart, who lives a short drive away from where the teacup once sat in New London Bay, has been an avid photographer of the distinctive rock structure.
“Unfortunately all that’s left there now is a bit of the pedestal,” Stewart said. “The saucer, if you like.”
On his countless visits to Thunder Cove Beach, Stewart said he’s met photographers and tourists from all over the world snapping shots of the teacup.
Stewart said the loss of the landmark doesn’t compare to Fiona’s destruction of homes in Atlantic Canada, but he said it’s still “devastating.”
“What was so special about the teacup is that it was a natural formation. It wasn’t something that somebody went and crafted,” he said.
The lamented teacup joins the former Elephant Rock, which drew thousands of tourists over the years to Norway, PEI, on the Island’s northwestern tip, until it also fell victim to the elements in the late 1990s.
Chainsaws by Day, Generators by Night
In Halifax, the region’s largest city, more than 24,000 households were spending their fourth day without electricity, CP says. During the day, the snarl of chainsaws provides most of the background noise in the city, and at night the soundscape changes to the low drone of generators.
Nova Scotia’s electric utility issued a statement Tuesday saying it had 1,300 technicians and assessors in the field, the company’s largest mobilization in its history. That number included crews from New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Ontario, and New England.
Building Back Differently
On his trip through the region, Trudeau was asked whether the solution to a catastrophic storm like Fiona is to build back differently.
“There’s always lessons to be learned,” he told reporters in Stanley Bridge, where a massive storm surge and hurricane-force winds upended buildings and tossed fishing boats onto the shore. But “unfortunately, the reality with climate change is that there’s going to be more extreme weather events. We’re going to have to think about how to make sure we’re ready for whatever comes at us.”
CP says Trudeau also paid a brief visit to the Cape Breton community of Glace Bay, where he met with residents and surveyed a blustery, rain-soaked neighbourhood where he was shown two homes with their roofs torn off.
Afterwards he was asked whether it’s time to consider stronger building codes given the increasing intensity of storms. “How we make sure that families don’t have to go through this level of anxiety is certainly part of the conversation we can have around building codes, around expectations,” he said.
As for whether it’s time for Ottawa to invest more in burying overhead power lines, “we’re looking at ways of building more resilient infrastructure.” But “the reality is that extreme weather events are going to get more intense over the coming years because our climate is changing.”
Marvin Graham, owner of Graham’s Deep Sea Fishing in Stanley Bridge, said Trudeau asked him how much the storm would cost in terms of lost business, considering his fishing boat had been lifted out of the water and dumped on the town’s wharf.
Graham said it was too early to tell, and he told Trudeau that something had to be done about recurring storm surges battering the coastline.
“Those loose sand dunes, if they keep washing away, there’s going to be a wide-open hole there for the ocean to come right through,” Graham said. “We have to save them first.”
On Tuesday, the Canadian Space Agency posted two satellite photos of Prince Edward Island, one taken on August 21, the other on September 25, a day after Fiona lashed the island with hurricane-force winds that exceeded 140 kilometres per hour.
The second photo shows the blue waters around the Island streaked by huge underwater plumes of sand and soil extending far offshore. The agency posted a tweet saying the photos illustrate “the extent to which the extreme wind and wave action of the storm has churned up the sea floor and eroded the coastline.”
Elsewhere in the region, a record 15.9-metre wave—almost four storeys high—northeast of the Magdalen Islands “led to the destruction of natural habitats and warmed up parts of the ocean that are so deep, the water temperature typically hovers around –3°C,” CBC reports. “Some scientists warn the impacts on marine ecosystems could be severe and long-lasting as tropical storms become more common.”
Peter Galbraith, a research scientist in physical oceanography with the Maurice Lamontagne Institute in Mont-Joli, Quebec, said winds and waves were powerful enough to reduce surface temperatures by 6.5°C in one day and warm water as deep as 40 to 50 metres by 6°—a process change that would normally take place in the fall and take six weeks.