Port aux Basques was once a bustling port community. One year after a deadly storm took away dozens of homes, it’s changed – perhaps forever.
Denise Pike Anderson frowns, her frustration palpable.
“It’s not gone away,” she says, shaking her head. “The anxiety feeling is still there.”
She’s been trying to figure out how to fit her adult son, Robert, into a guest bedroom not much larger than a small shed. He’s too tall for the bunk bed, she explains — yet another problem she’s had to adjust to over the past year.
There’s a long, bumpy road to Pike Anderson’s new home, a two-bedroom house with green siding tucked away amid some jack pines on the southwestern shore of Newfoundland. Unlike her last property, this one doesn’t have an ocean view. It’s on high ground in Cape Ray, a small community about 15 kilometres away from her friends, family and old neighbours in Port aux Basques.
Pike Anderson’s family is among the 159 households permanently displaced by post-tropical storm Fiona, the historic cyclone that devastated the region one year ago. Last September, the storm ripped through Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island before pushing a wall of seawater toward Newfoundland’s south coast. Port aux Basques, nearly at sea level itself, was inundated by a lethal combination of a two-metre storm surge, 16-metre waves and the high tide; by the time Fiona left, it had turned dozens of homes in the town into little more than piles of splinters.
Pike Anderson still fidgets nervously when she recalls the surge that flooded her seaside home, almost flinching as she describes clinging to her porch railing, desperately trying to escape the water rushing in as it tore down everything in its path.
She still visits the piece of barren land where her house once stood. That was her spot. She’d drink coffee there every morning, looking out on the deep blue Atlantic.
These days, though, the ocean brings more fear than peace.
“Every day. Every day I check the weather,” she says. “How many hurricanes is in the Gulf, and how many’s coming up through, and where’s this one going to land.”
That constant vigilance has imbued those who remain in Port aux Basques with a sense of profound distress. Any severe weather forecast now sends even the most stoic residents into a tailspin of worry, says Rene Roy, editor-in-chief of the Wreckhouse Weekly, a local newspaper that’s covered the aftermath of Fiona for the last 12 months.
“There’s definitely a perspective shift,” Roy said, leaning back in his office chair. He’s not far from where he took a photo that circulated in news outlets worldwide as Fiona bore down on his hometown: a blue house in shambles, clinging to a cliffside.
“I think people are a lot more aware of the weather now. They’re a lot more nervous.”
Roy launches into a story. He’d had a bonfire in the yard last night. Perfect weather. Normally, half the town would stop by to say hello, he said, rolling down their car windows for a chat. But this year, nobody dropped in. At the grocery store, too, locals are quiet, lost in their own worlds. Conversation that once flowed freely is now forced and stilted. Grief and fear hangs over the town, palpable and suffocating.
“This town has shifted so much,” he says. “It has died since Fiona, because that sense of community got demolished.”
Roy speaks gravely, surrounded by papers in his office. He’s working on a book about the disaster, interviewing people as they recount the worst day of their lives. He’s weighed down by it all, he says, even though his house wasn’t touched.
“Everything around here is different. Water Street, now — I used to be able to walk down there and say hi to all the neighbors, and now you walk down there and it’s a beach. There’s nothing,” he says, raising his eyebrows.
“It’s been completely scoured.”
Of the houses ripped apart by Fiona — 102 of them ruined by seawater in Port aux Basques and surrounding communities — perhaps none was more famous than Peggy Savery’s, that same blue house Roy immortalized by lens, capturing its final moments before the sea swept it away.
The Saverys have settled into their new home, decorated with keepsakes they found amid the debris in the days after Fiona. A brass candlestick from her grandfather sits on the mantel beside a plaque gifted from a friend. “Stronger than the storm,” it reads.
The months that followed Fiona brought record heat waves, wildfires and flooding across the country. It’s hard not to see what happened to Port aux Basques as a symbol of climate change, a harbinger for what was, and still is, to come.
“I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” Savery says. “My heart breaks for all the devastation going on around the world right now, because I have an inside view of what these people are going to go through.”
She’s spent the last year wading through paperwork, scrambling to rebuild what the family lost, fighting with her insurance company (which, eventually, refused to pay out). Now she’s focused on making new memories in a new home, trying to forget what was swallowed by the sea.
She’s not alone, she says, in feeling dread whenever the weather turns, and can’t shake the fear of stronger storms on the horizon.
“People don’t want to be near the water anymore,” Savery says. “They worry about what the future is going to bring.”
Just a few houses down from the Saverys, Patty Munden wanders amid crossbeams and insulation. She used nearly every cent at her disposal to buy a piece of land in Port aux Basques after Fiona, determined to stay in town with her elderly mother.
She’s rebuilding, and while it’s not the house of her dreams, she’s keen to make it so.
Munden pulls out a book her son gifted her last year, flipping through photos of the seaside home she lost to the surge.
“I lived by the ocean all my life, and I wanted to build there again. I didn’t want to move to a subdivision. I wanted to be around the ocean,” Munden says.
But it took months, she says, to overcome the fear of the water that single storm instilled in her. The morning Fiona hit, a wave nearly claimed her husband; he escaped its clutches, bruised and shaken, but alive.
She says it took all her strength to visit the shore once again — which she finally did one recent morning.
“I got a cup of tea and I went down behind my house and I sat on the rock,” she recalls, pausing to fight back tears. “And I said, I can’t let this ocean make me scared.”
What happened to the community spirit of Port aux Basques, and the ongoing collective trauma its residents now endure, isn’t unusual.
Kiffer Card, an assistant professor at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University who studies climate-related anxiety, says those changes — the isolation, the depression, the fear — indicate widespread post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of Fiona.
“If you think about it, it’s one of the most basic human experiences to be attached to the place where you live,” he said in an interview from Victoria. “When that is lost to you, that could be incredibly disruptive. It erodes your sense of security, the way you think that life is stable.”
In the days following a natural disaster, it’s common for communities to pull together to help victims with the basics of food and shelter. But as the months wear on, Card explains, trauma can set in, triggered intermittently by bad weather and influencing, as Roy noted, how members of the community relate to each other.
But there’s a way to fight it.
“They might not even really cognize it, or might not even emotionally think about it. It might just be this underlying psychological process that arose,” Card says. “Thinking about how you feel and acknowledging that these mental health symptoms are completely natural is really critical, knowing that we do depend on our environments and the places we live in.”
After awareness, he adds, comes the importance of leaning on your neighbour, talking about the disaster and being present to support those feeling fear and grief.
“They need supports of a loving environment to help them address that,” he said.
Fiona isn’t quite done with Port aux Basques.
Century-old homes still dot the shores of its low-lying downtown, picturesque as ever, surrounded by the sea. Most of them have withstood a hundred years of torrential rain, harsh winds and aggressive snowfall.
But it’s emptier these days. The remains of houses lost to the surge have been carted away, pebble-filled gashes in the landscape the only indication anything ever stood there.
Alex Osmond putters around his property. He’s lived in this bungalow since the 1960s, he says. It managed to escape Fiona without a scratch.
But provincial and town officials told the 84-year-old in June that his house was too close to the shoreline. Any future storms would put him at risk, they said. His home was among 57 properties lying within the exclusion zone that, by next year, will be torn down. He has until March to move out.
He doesn’t know where he’ll end up. Bay Roberts, perhaps. Maybe St. John’s.
“I didn’t think it would ever come up that way,” he said of the ocean, for decades so close to the back steps of his home, but now considered at risk of taking his life.
“I still don’t want to leave,” he says.
“I made it all those years.”
Drone photography by Danny Arsenault