In Port aux Basques, NL, residents reeling after Fiona destroys dozens of homes

CHANNEL-PORT AUX BASQUES, NL — Jocelyn Gillam knows she is lucky to be alive after battling the post-tropical storm that destroyed part of her town in southwestern Newfoundland and nearly swept it away in a stormy wave of water.

Gillam was standing near her home in Port aux Basques on Saturday morning when a storm surge hit, sweeping her off her feet and dragging her under a Jeep as she clung to the undercarriage for her life.

The 61-year-old said she was chatting with family and neighbors when she turned her head and « saw Fiona coming ».

« It was brown, it was white, it was angry, » she said in a phone interview. « You could see she was coming with a vengeance. »

Post-Tropical Storm Fiona has carved a path of devastation across parts of Atlantic Canada, leaving behind destroyed homes, debris-strewn roads and hundreds of thousands of people without power.

But few places have been hit harder than the community of 4,000 people in Port aux Basques, where dozens of homes have been destroyed and a 73-year-old woman has died after being swept out to sea when a storm surge flooded his house.

Gillam remembers feeling the water rise as she struggled to hold on to the Jeep and her brother-in-law struggled against the current to reach her.

« He came but he couldn’t find me because there was so much water, » she said. « I was underwater so, so much. »

She said her brother-in-law called for help, and he and a few neighbors managed to grab her when the water started to drop.

Gillam escaped with only a knocked knee and memories she says will live with her « forever and a day ».

« Last night I didn’t sleep a wink because every time I turned around I could see the waves and then I could taste the water and I could smell it in my nose, » said- she declared. However, she says she is on the mend and feels lucky that her house was not damaged.

Many in his town were not so lucky.

On Monday, residents escorted by provincial response teams sorted through piles of debris in the pouring rain to salvage what they could of what was left of their homes.

A house perched on the edge of the rocks was missing an entire wall, its kitchen table and cupboard fully exposed on the sagging wooden floor. About 30 meters away, another house was nearly flattened, its roof and side wall missing. Nearby, a stuffed animal and blanket with Pixar « Cars » characters lay under splinters of wood.

Premier Andrew Furey visited Port aux Basques and nearby communities on Monday and compared the devastation in southwestern Newfoundland to the disaster areas where he worked as a doctor.

As of Monday afternoon, he said, at least 80 homes were destroyed or structurally damaged in Port aux Basques alone – but the number could rise as authorities continue to take stock of the damage.

« For every roof that floats in the ocean, there’s a family, there are stories and memories attached to that infrastructure, and that’s what’s heartbreaking, » he told reporters.

He said officials are still working with the federal government on where to deploy members of the Armed Forces and other federal aid that has been offered.

Andrew Parsons, the MPP for Burgeo-La Poile, told the conference that the immediate goal of relief efforts is to ensure people have shelter, food and clothing. While emergency shelter has been made available, he said all those who have been displaced are staying in hotels or with families.

The longer reconstruction effort will take longer and involve federal government coordination and assistance. « We don’t have all the answers right now, but we will get there, and everyone will be back through this ordeal, » he said.

Furey said the government will announce a financial support package in the coming days that will help those whose insurance will not cover the damage.

The extent and cost of the damage was still being assessed Monday, Furey added. He said the Canadian Armed Forces also determine where help is most needed.

Warrant Officer Bradley McInnis was among the first to arrive in Port aux Basques from the 5th Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, based in Gander, Newfoundland, to alert the military to areas of greatest need.

He stopped briefly in the pouring rain on a street lined with damaged houses and debris to discuss the first stages of the work. As families walked through with belongings, McInnis said the scale of the destruction only deepened.

« Some parts of the city, it’s just a wasteland, » he said. « It’s unimaginable to think where to start. »

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on September 26, 2022.

— With files from Morgan Lowrie in Montreal

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press


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