Water Street East is forever changed six months after Hurricane Fiona. Houses remaining next to the water (above, right) are slated for removal.© René J. Roy / Wreckhouse Press

Hurricane Fiona ravaged the Southwest coast only six months ago. Since the beginning, work to help those most affected has moved forward, and larger matters like house demolitions remain ongoing. 

“With the homes being torn down, when we initially started there were homes that came down quickly in the beginning, just because, some of it, for safety reasons and so on. As it started to progress and assessors and those people needed to be on the ground for the provincial government side of things, that process slowed down and we got homes as they got released to us,” explained Port aux Basques Mayor Brian Button.

“We have a bunch of homes now that have been released, of course, with packages coming out, and that has since gone to the provincial government to put it out for tender. They’ll be putting it out to tender, talking to the local contractors here and different people who will bid on it.  That’ll come back from that process and once we get it, we’ll then double-check each one to make sure the packages are all signed off and all clear. If they’re all clear we will indicate to the residents that they have so much time now, because some people might have some stuff still stored in their homes. We’ll give them a minimum of time to go in and get their things out, and then the demolitions will start.” 

The exact number of homes that are left to come down is unclear. 

“I think there’s about 24-25 on the next list that will go, and now as the provincial government officials were here delivering packages again last week, we’ll probably get those homes now and then they’ll go. We’re hopeful that the majority of demolitions will be done sometime in April because construction season is coming and it will probably be harder to get contractors, and we expect contractors to be quite busy. It’s a process and we’d like to get it done sooner rather than later.” 

Having the homes come down is one of the town’s top priorities. 

“I know residents have contacted me, and they’d like to see it come down as well because it’s still that painful memory. They’ve got to go through it one more time when they see the home actually hit the ground. It’s another tough day for them, and that’s why we still have mental health services that are in  town and will be available for that, and they will be on sites as these things are happening, to be around for residents if need be,” said Button. “It’s just another chapter of this that you’d like to see done, so it takes away some of those painful memories.” 

Municipal infrastructure is also still in need of significant repairs. 

“We have several things that are out (for tender). There’s a couple of tenders awarded, like Cox’s Avenue. The infrastructure up there was damaged. As well, on Water Street East we have a big piece out for that,” said Button. “These things are now being awarded and as the weather allows us we will get started on all that. In some cases, the demolition pieces are important because, with the removal of the homes, a lot of homes have parts of our systems that run underneath their houses, and when that is out of the way it helps with everything that we need to do.”

The old fish plant was in disrepair before Fiona hit and there are issues with that as well. 

“It’s privately owned and there are some safety concerns that we have with it. We’re hoping to have those addressed sooner than later. I think that they’re also working with the owners here to see if we can get this taken care of. I assure you there will be something done with it here in the spring,” said Button. 

Now that packages are starting to roll out, less people remain living in hotel rooms. 

“It’s a very minimal number, three or four families or so. It’s a small number that are there. I know there is at least one in there now who is waiting for a home to close. They’re purchasing a home, and they’ll be coming out soon,” said Button. “We’ve been very fortunate in this whole process. I’ve been somewhat amazed over the fact that, we said in the beginning that we had a very big housing crisis before Fiona, and then you throw all of this in the mix and say, ‘where is everybody going to go,’ so I’ve been relatively amazed that they’ve been able, from a housing perspective, to get it down to that bare minimum. For a while there I was thinking we would have people stuck in that living for a while , and that was heartbreaking to know that. We don’t want to have anybody in a hotel situation.” 

One of the residents who lost their homes, Brian ‘Smokey’ Osmond, is currently living in an apartment and he says things are going okay. 

“I’m not doing too bad. Everybody’s been looking after us. Every time the Red Cross helped I would take it to buy furniture and that, and right now, it’s all straightened up for my house and I’m hoping to get money in the next three or four weeks,” said Osmond. “The Red Cross has given me $17,500. They gave $10,000 and then they gave another $7,500 another month or so ago. They’ve really looked after us, I’ve got to say.” 

Osmond doesn’t plan to rebuild. 

“I don’t know where I want to go. If something comes up that I like, I’ll buy it, but if not I’ll probably stay here or go to the (Codroy) Valley or something like that. I’ll soon be 63 years old and I don’t want any worries. If you’re going over in Grand Bay West, they’ll probably tax us more there, brand new house and the insurance might be more there, I only have a small pension.” 

The home losses during Fiona caused extra strain on an already critical housing situation in the region, and reports have been circulating that some renters are in danger of losing their living accommodations because  property owners are selling to take advantage of a hot sales market. 

While Button hasn’t been privy to any specific details, he understands how that exacerbates matters. 

“Before Fiona we had a housing problem, whether it was trying to find housing for medical students or you’re trying to find housing in general. Whatever the case might’ve been, we’ve been having a problem. Knowing that, when we’ve got all these people in the mix, it will become a problem for people who weren’t even affected by Fiona. They will have to go then and try to find a new house or try to find some sort of apartment living, whatever the case may be,” said Button. “I would hope that we’re at a minimum stage of that. I am sure it probably exists, that it’s there, and that’s very unfortunate, but as we’re trying to work through this, we’re working on housing projects as well. We’re making amendments to our town plan that would allow some commercial buildings here, if someone wanted to do it privately, purchase these buildings and change them into apartment living. Whatever the case might be, it would give them the flexibility to do so. It would be permitted in those areas, to help alleviate some of the problems.” 

Getting monetary packages to the residents who lost their homes has been a lengthy process. 

“I think now they are down to about 25 to 29 residents out of 102 that packages are left to go out to. I think those people, this week, will be contacted and be made aware that their packages are coming, that they’re going to try and have that come out in one group, or as close to one group as they can, and be able to finish up that part of it. That doesn’t mean that cash is in people’s hands. It means you have the chance to review your package, sign off on it, then it goes back and cash is distributed. I think there’s over 34, 35 where cash has been dispersed. I believe there’s over $14 to 15 million that has been given out to people.” 

Six months after Fiona, the town is still finding its footing again. Button sees the progress made thus far as relatively swift. 

“We’re six months in and we have people with cash in hand. I look at that, and if I look at previous disasters in other jurisdictions, I think this is well ahead in some cases of where other jurisdictions have found themselves in the event of a major disaster. Although it’s frustrating, nobody has been more frustrated at times than me. I can understand the frustration that people have. There have been many times when I’ve been on calls with the government where I’ve been purple in the face, not because of difficulties in trying to get people to work with you, but the time, how long things are taking.” 

Another form of compensation came in the form of Hurricane Fiona donations, which have yet to be doled out to residents. 

“There’s a committee that’s been formed to take a look at how we’re going to structure the distribution of the donations, and that committee has just been formed recently. We’ve had a couple of meetings, so now we’re looking at different methods in terms of how we’re going to distribute, so that’s where we’re at right now,” said Edwina Bateman, coordinator for the Hurricane Fiona donations. “No money has gone from that account yet.” 

Updates will be provided as the process continues so that residents can expect to get their share. 

“You can always check Port aux Basques council (Facebook page) because we will be doing regular updates. We’ll be doing little news releases and giving updates on our progress. Because this is a process, it’s going to take time before we can actually look at how we’re going to distribute it. We have to make sure that we’re doing good due diligence with this and make sure things are done right, so it’s going to be a process.” 

Button says that the majority of the residents do understand. 

“The majority of people that I’ve talked to about the compensation packages have been relatively pleased and receptive to the packages. In some cases there is no money that can replace what people had. I had one resident say to me that if he had the choice of coming in here to sign the papers or giving back all the money the government has given to him so he could have back the life that he had, do the things that he did, just go out and sit in his shed tonight, he’d give it all back. He was quite comfortable the way he was. I can accept that. If I were to lose what I have, my own little spot where I can go and sit, I would be devastated too. Overall, I think people are okay. People are frustrated with the process, like how long it takes, and that’s understandable. I don’t begrudge people for that, I’m not sitting in their shoes, but that is frustrating. Overall, the majority of people I speak to understand the process, and understand that it takes time.” 

Throughout everything, Button has a vision of where he hopes to see Port aux Basques in the future. 

“My vision is to see us try to get things back in order. Six months seems like a long time for the residents that were affected, and it has been for them. We’re going to be in this for quite a while yet, for our total bounce back from Fiona. We are looking at years to be able to do that. We have infrastructure to rebuild. We have homes to rebuild. We have lives to rebuild. We’re losing some residents. We’re losing tax base in  the community. We’re losing business in the community. That’s the sad reality of this and no one wants to see this. So for us, for the future of our community, it’s going to be down the road before we see the big impacts on how this has impacted us, more than just the loss of homes, the overall impact,” said Button. 

“I think once we get back to the point where our residents can be taken care of, especially those who lost everything, people who have damages and stuff, overall, we’re a long ways from one, but for the future we’ve got to, like always, people around here are resilient. We are going to pick ourselves up and continue to go. I want to keep the spirits up within the community. That’s my job and the job of others. People here that sit around the table try to lead the community and we will try to lead it to make sure Fiona doesn’t finish us.”

By Jaymie White, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 27, 2023 at 06:00

This item reprinted with permission from    Wreckhouse Weekly News    Port aux Basques, Newfoundland
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