In the year since Fiona struck the Island, UPEI’s School of Climate Change and Adaptation has seen a big jump in inquiries from waterfront property owners as well as potential buyers wondering about the risk level — and what they can do to lower it.
Risks of storm surge and erosion now top of mind for some owners and buyers
Steve Bruce · CBC News
Jim Randall stands on his empty waterfront lot, staring at the wooden posts that once supported his family’s cottage on New London Bay, P.E.I.
One year after a Fiona-fuelled storm surge swept his cottage away, Randall says visiting the lot still causes him “sadness and a bit of frustration.”
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But he’s keen to show off what happened here, as a cautionary tale.
“I’m talking about this, not for myself, but for my neighbours and other Islanders that are going to affected by the next Fiona — because another one is going to come,” said Randall.
“And if we don’t get our heads out of the sand and do something about this, then they’re going to be the ones feeling emotional and financial loss in the future.”
13 cottages disappeared
Randall’s cottage was one of 13 in the Hebrides, a low-lying peninsula along P.E.I.’s North Shore, that disappeared the night of Sept. 23, 2022.
When Randall had his waterfront cottage built a decade ago, he knew there were flood risks. In fact, after post-tropical storm Dorian caused some water damage in 2019, he had the cottage raised about a metre off the ground.
I’m not naive. We knew we were close to the waterfront. But nobody ever would think it would be as severe as it was. But that’s the new reality.— Jim Randall
“We were told at the time by the contractors that this would withstand any flooding from that point on,” he said. “Now, I’m not naive. We knew we were close to the waterfront. But nobody ever would think it would be as severe as it was. But that’s the new reality.”
Xander Wang says it’s clear the post-tropical storm woke a lot of waterfront property owners up to that new reality.
Wang’s an associate professor at UPEI’s School of Climate Change and Adaptation. As part of its research, the school tracks and forecasts rising water levels, coastal erosion, and the impacts of major storms like Fiona.
Wang says in the 12 months since Fiona, the school’s seen a big jump in the number of inquiries from waterfront property owners, and those looking to buy — who are wondering about the risk level, and what they can do to lower it.
“These have become more common factors people are considering — erosion rate in your location, do you see big storm surge in this area? So I’m glad to see more people asking about that,” said Wang.
“If you’re going to build something, you want to make sure it’s safe, at least for quite a few decades. You don’t want to see it will disappear in the next decade.”
New development guidelines in the works
Wang and his colleagues are also helping the P.E.I. government, which is working on new development guidelines for at-risk properties. Those are expected to be out “in the near future,” according to a spokesperson for the province.
In the meantime, the spokesperson said, “any new development that occurs on a parcel impacted by flooding due to Fiona is being evaluated… to determine whether it is feasible and reasonable to allow a rebuild to occur.”
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Randall says he’s not interested in rebuilding on his lot, or selling it — at least not until there are clearer rules in place to help guide buyers and assure them it’s a good investment.
“Things like building codes to make them more stringent, so you can’t build unless maybe you’re building with 12-inch by 12-inch posts. And you have to be a storey high so a storm surge won’t affect the structures,” said Randall. “If or when we put it on the market, every potential buyer is going to want to have some degree of certainty about what they’re facing.”
That’s not to say the market for waterfront properties on the Island has tanked since Fiona.
According to the P.E.I. Real Estate Association, while the number of waterfront lots sold is down over last year, sales of coastal homes and cottages is up.
Association president James Marjerrison points out that the risk facing waterfront properties varies greatly depending on their location.
However, he said buyers are asking more questions.
“People want to know if a storm is to come, whether this property is susceptible to erosion, certainly if there’s been erosion control done to the property — they want to know details like that. So I think it’s just top of mind now,” said Marjerrison.
Some of Randall’s Hebrides neighbours whose cottages stayed put during Fiona are taking their own measures to limit the risk in the future.
His next-door neighbour recently had his cottage raised.
We’ve needed repairs over a couple different storms, with Fiona being the third repair now.— Myrna Gough
On the other side of the peninsula, where erosion is the bigger concern, Myrna Gough just had the rock seawall she had installed more than a decade ago repaired and fortified.
Gough, who is also president of the Hebrides Homeowners Association, says the wall gives her some peace of mind, but has its issues.
“We’ve needed repairs over a couple different storms, with Fiona being the third repair now,” she said. “It’s very expensive to do now. There’s controversy about it, and whether or not it does the job of protecting the shoreline, if all the shoreline isn’t done in the armour rock. And that’s something being looked at by the province.”
‘We need to speed up our research’
Wang says there is limited research on the effectiveness of armour rock, as well as on other approaches to slow erosion and protect waterfront properties.
His school is starting to do more of that research now, and working to improve modelling tools that assess the risk in 2023 and into the future.
“We feel a little bit behind, because before, we knew erosion was a normal, natural process. Now it’s speeding up. So we need to speed up our research to make sure we can catch up,” said Wang.
It’s all happening too late for Randall and some of his neighbours. Insurance policies don’t typically cover storm surge damage, so no one who lost a cottage received compensation.
The federal government and the Insurance Bureau of Canada are working together on a plan to make storm surge coverage more accessible.
Randall thinks it’ll take efforts like that to make waterfront properties like his worthy of future development.
“I think waterfront is always going to have value,” he said. “There has to be a collaborative approach between government and the insurance sector, and individual landowners who can take up some of the risk and responsibility as well, to come up with a solution.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Bruce is a video journalist with CBC P.E.I. He landed on the Island in 2009, after stints with CBC in Fredericton, St. John’s, Toronto and Vancouver. He grew up in Corner Brook, N.L.