Original Published on Oct 03, 2022 at 12:30
By Rosalyn Roy Senior Staff Reporter, with files from: Jaymie White, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, René J. Roy
Correction: an earlier version misidentified Judy Savory as Lorna. We apologize for the error and any confusion or inconvenience.
SOUTHWEST COAST — Even after witnessing it firsthand, it is difficult to fully process the sheer magnitude of the devastation. On Monday, September 19, tropical depression Fiona formed in the tropical central Atlantic and headed north on a collision course with the Atlantic provinces. Five days later she tore through Nova Scotia as a Category 2 hurricane-strength post-tropical depression, before crossing the Gulf of St. Lawrence and slamming into the Southwest Coast of the island portion of Newfoundland and Labrador.
In Port aux Basques, Mayor Brian Button told media that over 20 homes were swept into the ocean by the storm surge. Environment Canada measured a peak high water level of 2.75 metres (9 feet), but backed by wind speeds of 134 km/h (177 km/h at the Wreckhouse), waves swept constantly over the rocky island of Channel Head that has long protected Water Street East from the harshest of storms.
By the next morning, the devastation was far worse than anyone had projected. On Sunday morning, Sept. 25, Port aux Basques emergency crews, town council and staff were trying their best to make a complete and accurate assessment of the damage, while trying to keep residents from endangering themselves further by returning home, warning of live wires, infrastructure failures and unknown dangers obscured by debris.
“We’re doing a review of all areas now, trying to get an idea on exactly how many homes are damaged and trying to get an idea on where repairs and clean up can actually start. We’re not even close to finishing that process yet. We’re still only part way through and it’s much more extensive than we originally thought,” said Town Manager Leon MacIsaac. “Everything is staying in place for the time being, all the barriers, because we cannot permit people back. It’s still too dangerous.”
The warnings across social media platforms by the town and by media outlets did little to prevent worried residents or curious onlookers from streaming past barricades. Some residents were able to return to assess the damage to their own property, like Judy and Ken Savory, whose home took a significant beating.
“When Brian (Mayor Button) got on and said he got an update from the hurricane centre saying it was going to be worse than what they anticipated – I was with my daughter – and we called down (to my husband) and said we should leave. That was the first time we’ve ever left here, through all the storms we’ve had,” said Judy. “We had a big backyard, and now we’ve got nothing. When we bought this house – it’s his grandfather’s house – when Bubbles (Ulrick Savory) when he moved to Mouse Island, up the Brook, he sold this house to us for $2,500. We’ve been here 43 years.”
The Savory’s left their home the night before the storm hit, and the damage to the lower half of the home is readily apparent.
“The basement window broke, and the door must’ve gotten pushed in. I’ve got two freezers full of meat down there and all of Ken’s tools because we took them out of the shed. We’re going to go down and gut it out,” said Judy. “It’s unreal, and now we’ve got to decide whether we’re going or staying.”
Ken said after decades of living in the home, they spent considerable time, money and effort into upgrades, repairs and such. That has all been washed away overnight.
“I gradually built it up and now it’s all back to square one.”
During the height of the storm and in its aftermath, firefighters with the Channel-Port Aux Basques Volunteer Fire Department have been working tirelessly to ensure residents reached safety, said Chief Jerry Musseau.
“We got our first call just after 7:00 on Saturday morning and from there it was a snowball effect – call after call after call – of people looking for assistance with damage to their home or trying to get out of their homes,” said Musseau. “The first call was on Clement Crescent. They were losing their basement from underneath their home. The waves were coming up and crashing into the basement and the side of their home and they were getting out, but they didn’t know what to do or where to go. All day from there, the same calls were coming in – damage to homes, the sides were moving, the siding was coming off, they didn’t know what to do.”
Even as they were helping people get to safety, the firefighters were putting themselves at risk, to the point that Musseau worried about the safety of his crew.
“There was a big concern when we first arrived because the winds were very high and it was difficult standing up. We were close to the water, so that was a big concern. I told the guys we cannot go close to the water’s edge. We can do what we can to get people out of their houses when they need help, like arrange for people who never had vehicles to have someone pick them up and take them to places like the Lions Club or Salvation Army.”
First responders, the town, volunteers all worked together to help residents.
“The Town opened up their EMO Centre and I think they had to open it up in the hospital because the Town Hall area was flooded. And they told us the centres, like the Lions Club and the Salvation Army, were opened up and we could tell people to go out there or it’s where we could arrange to transport people.”
Even as a seasoned first responder, Musseau admitted he was shocked at the extent of the damage.
“When I surveyed this yesterday afternoon (Sept. 24) when the storm was still at its height or peak – these streets, down on Legrow, Water Street, Clement Crescent – I classified it as a war zone because it’s something you wouldn’t normally see here. We’ve seen damages in Port aux Basques before with storms, but never anything like this one.”
There was also an incident in the Lake’s Brook area that involved a vehicle, but Musseau said it was nothing major once firefighters responded. Firefighters are currently among the crews working to clear and secure damaged properties so homeowners can return.
“We started out just after 7:00 Saturday morning and we wound down around 4:00 p.m. The calls were stopped by then and most everybody who had damages to their homes were all out. We did our best to stop people from coming in and looking, and this morning, sometime around 9:30, we started to keep the streets clear for onlookers who wanted to see what damages occurred overnight,” said Musseau. “We know everybody wants to get in and see it, but for their own safety we want to keep people out as directed by the Town because we are in a state of emergency, and we are trying to keep everybody safe. There are downed wires, downed poles, live wires. I know it’s frustrating, but we want to keep people away and keep them safe. We don’t want to see any further injury and no further damages.”
Musseau said the impact of Hurricane Fiona is something you have to see to full understand.
“I made a comment this morning to NTV News, and I said, many a times I watched CNN News, and you see down in Puerto Rico or the Bahamas where those major hurricanes happen and they are just devastating and you don’t realize it when you watch it on TV, but today I do. Now I see it first hand.”
MHA Andrew Parsons (Burgeo – LaPoile) agreed that seeing the devastation in photos pales to witnessing it first hand.
“Today, just seeing the aftermath in person, it’s horrific. That’s the only word I can think of right now. It’s like a movie set. There’s boulders tossed around, houses sliding across roads, people’s lives… everything. It’s not like anything anybody has ever seen before.”
Given the magnitude of the damage, both the Federal and Provincial governments are providing assistance. On Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared that Ottawa would match corporate donations to the Canadian Red Cross dollar for dollar for the next 30 days.
“We’re seeing devastating images coming out of Port aux Basques,” said Trudeau. “Recovery is going to be a big effort. We will be there to support every step of the way.”
The Federal government has also committed to sending troops to the region to help with the cleanup. Meanwhile offers of support, both financial and otherwise, continue to pour in.
By Sunday evening the Stephenville chapter of the Lions Club had delivered a shipment of water, clothing, paper products, toiletries and food items to Port aux Basques where volunteers with St. James Elementary and High School sorted items and packaged them for affected residents to collect.
Henry Hedderson, President of the Stephenville Lions Club and his wife, Marie, also a member of the club who was still wearing her work uniform delivered the items in their personal pickup truck and promised at least two more loads to come.
“The other fellow came before me – he had a trailer load, so I just took it on my own and came out with a trailer load,” said Henry.
Donors even beat Henry to the Stephenville Lions Club, rushing to assist as soon as reports of the extent of the damage hit the news and social media.
“As soon as I got there, there were three cars already.”
The Lions say they are enormously grateful for the outpouring of support, but not in the least surprised by the generosity of Newfoundlanders rushing to help.
“We got a tractor-trailer leaving St. John’s some time tomorrow and coming across the island, picking up goods as it comes,” added Brad Clarke, First Vice-President of the Port aux Basques Lions Club. “We’ve got a lot of local businesses donating supplies.”
The Port aux Basques Lions Club, which is one of the town’s emergency warming centres, did shelter people during the height of the storm.
“We had a lot of people here yesterday,” admitted Clarke, who gave a lot of credit to the volunteers pitching in. “Long hours.”
On Monday, Sept. 26 Premier Andrew Furey toured the Southwest Coast before holding a media availability along with MHA Parsons and MHA Elvis Loveless, Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure. They re-iterated pledges of support from all three levels of government, and addressing challenges for homeowners when it comes to insurance. Following the storm in November 2021, the province did release a financial assistance package.
“In the immediate term, as in tomorrow and the next days, we need to make sure that those who didn’t have insurance are looked after, and so we will be announcing a financial package over the next few days.”
Furey also wants to discuss storm surge coverage with insurers across the country, but that is part of the long-term response and will have to wait until people are cared for and the trio also announced that a dedicated Fiona Response Coordinator has been established to assist residents and those who want to help.
Effective 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 27, anyone with inquiries related to Hurricane Fiona may contact Joanne Clarke at 709-695-9871 or via email at FionaResponse@gov.nl.ca for assistance.
“Efficiency is paramount. We want to make sure that the funds are getting to the people who need them,” said Furey. “I don’t want it to be bureaucratic. I want it to be operational so that the people who need the help can get the help that is required.”
Parsons has also provided contact information for those residents with property damage who might require some free legal services to consult on and assist with filing insurance claims. Affected homeowners are encouraged to contact Judy Morrow toll free at 1-888-786-9207 or via email at email@example.com.
Parsons declined to comment further on the 73-year old woman swept out to sea, although he admitted to knowing the family. The woman, who has not yet been publicly identified, was recovered by Barachois Search and Rescue on Sunday. The team is based out of Search and Rescue and came to assist in the search after the storm subsided and weather conditions allowed.
“We’re dealing with tragic circumstances and then you throw it into the mix of a natural disaster that we haven’t faced and I think just heightens the sadness that everybody is feeling.”
Parsons estimates that 80 families have been displaced in the Port aux Basques area alone. Burgeo has lost at least one house, a couple more in Rose Blanche – Harbour Le Cou, and Burnt Islands has also lost a number of homes. In the Codroy Valley, there are no known housing losses, but some residents were still without power as of Monday evening. Numbers of displaced residents are expected to grow, as homes that look structurally sound may be deemed unsafe once engineers have had a chance to evaluate them properly.
The need for infrastructure repair was also discussed, though the cost damage estimate remains unknown as assessment and evaluation continue.
“A lot of these roads here are local roads, but we’ve assured them (community leaders) that we will be looking at them through a provincial lens,” promised Loveless.
On Facebook, a tired and sympathetic Mayor Button asked residents to exercise patience with overworked staff and rescuers. By Monday afternoon, the town was allowing evacuated residents of Water Street East to access some select homes, while under escort by volunteers from the fire brigade. The plan is to re-open some of the damaged areas so that displaced residents can retrieve clothing, toiletries and some minor personal effects.
“I know you’re frustrated. I know you’re upset,” said Button, citing public safety as part of the reason for the delays. “We’ve got to remain calm. We’ve got to work together, and we’ve got to do this together.”