Weeks after Fiona hammered Port aux Basques, residents continue to clean up – and look to tomorrow

Many homes in Port aux Basques were left bare and in tatters following the worst storm the town has ever seen. (Troy Turner/CBC)

The overflowing dumpsters that dot the streets of Port aux Basques tell the story.

They tell of homes lost, property destroyed and a cleanup effort still in its infancy, even though the storm is weeks old.

On September 24, Post-Tropical Storm Fiona tore through the coast to bare rock, swallowing everything in its path, including many homes – and even life – on Newfoundland’s southwest coast.

People have been picking up the pieces ever since, but the city has changed – forever.

“I know today is pretty gloomy,” Channel-Port aux Basques Mayor Brian Button said this week. « I know a lot of things have been broken in his life. But I think tomorrow we’ll have, we’ll have a better day and we’ll get through it. »

Across the city, workers and volunteers are sifting through and cleaning up the debris left behind by Fiona. (Troy Turner/CBC)

The streets come alive in Port aux Basques, but a dark blanket covers the people.

There’s a man digging a foot deep in his basement. He searches for his power tools, buried somewhere in the rubble. One by one, he plugs them in—nothing. Like the house he spent decades working on, salt water has ruined everyone.

A woman talks about her joy at finally getting temporary accommodation. But while moving the few belongings she has left, she falls and breaks her wrist, and her small victory is dulled by pain and reduced mobility.

Austin Taylor’s house has been boarded up. He has found temporary accommodation for the winter but is still waiting for financial assistance and a request for reimbursement. (Troy Turner/CBC)

A man gives spiritual thanks to those who watched over him and his brother. During the storm, her brother’s house shook, ready to leave its foundations. The man grabbed his boots and headed to the next door to help. His brother was caught in a wave. Seizing his brother’s hand, he pulled one way, while the ocean pulled the other. Luckily for both of them, this hold and her son’s help brought her brother to safety.

A couple laments the change in their neighborhood. There are houses missing and the view is different, but it was not the buildings that made this place, they say, it was the neighbors. Their friends. And without them nearby, their home no longer feels like home.

About three feet of water and oil still sits in the basement of Taylor’s home. (Troy Turner/CBC)

« It was his world »

There are people like Austin Taylor.

From the outside, his house looks intact, but there is a meter of water in his basement, mixed with heating oil that is leaking from a ravaged house nearby.

He is now in temporary accommodation but has no idea what will happen after the winter. His house has been boarded up, he says, but it’s hard to let go.

« These are things you lose sleep over, » he said. « It’s all in your mind. « It’s not just friends, it’s basically family. We talk to each other, we recognize each other, we help each other… I want [stay] in Port aux Basques. It is the house. »

Taylor moved into the house 28 years ago and finished paying the mortgage two years ago. He’s made plenty of modifications over the years, including installing a wheelchair ramp for his adult daughter, who is non-verbal and has Pitt-Hopkins syndrome, a rare genetic condition that causes cognitive and physical impairment.

« [It’s like] she just got ripped from her house, put in a car and taken away and she doesn’t understand why she can’t go home, » Taylor said. « That’s all she knows, that was her world. »

Taylor and his wife are in their late 50s. He was aiming to retire in two years. It’s too late to start again, he said.

Taylor says he’s waiting to see if the insurance will cover the damage to the house before deciding what to do. Until then, he thinks they will stay in temporary accommodation until spring. It’s hard to leave the old quarter.

Homes and sheds in front of Todd Charlton’s house were destroyed by ocean swells and the road was badly damaged. But the Port aux Basques man says he has been cleared to return home and does not want to move. (Troy Turner/CBC)

“It makes you feel wanted”

Todd Charlton has lived in his downtown neighborhood for less than two years, but it’s his and his family’s home.

His house faces the ocean, separated from the shore by a road and what used to be the houses and sheds of neighbors across the street.

He was evacuated for the storm, stepping over lines scattered on the ground from fallen poles, but returned when his house passed inspection.

« I have three children that I had to worry about, but everything, I guess, went well. »

Charlton and his family were displaced for about two weeks. Now that he’s back home, he has no plans to go anywhere else.

The road in front of Charlton’s house was shredded by last month’s storm. (Troy Turner/CBC)

« They can fix the street, » he said. It just needs some dirt to fill in the holes and some more gravel, he said. « As long as we don’t have another hurricane. »

Charlton, who grew up in Ontario, says he was encouraged by the way the community responded to the devastation and by the unwavering support shown by all those displaced.

« It makes you feel wanted, it’s like home. »

Rene Roy, editor of the community newspaper Wreckhouse Press, sees a change in the community after the massive storm. (Troy Turner/CBC)

A changed community

René Roy edits and directs the Wreckhouse Press, a weekly newspaper based in Port aux Basques. From first-hand coverage of the storm to stories of recovery in the days following, he says, Fiona was like nothing else.

« The sentiment in the community is now definitely changed, » he said. « Before, you could go to a grocery store and say, ‘Hey, how are you? » And how is your day going?’ And now when you go to a grocery store, you just nod or shake your head… It’s something that has affected everyone, not just people who have lost their homes. »

Port aux Basques is an area of ​​Newfoundland used to storms. Perched on the southwest corner of the island, it’s usually the first to fight the Atlantic weather and regularly sees winds in excess of 100 km/h.

Its inhabitants have become accustomed to it, Roy says, but there is now a new appreciation for what Mother Nature has to offer.

« I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s something they’ve never seen before and hope to never see again, » he said. « But I have to think it’s made a lot of people more aware of watching the weather now. »

From the front, many of the homes Fiona hit appear relatively unscathed, but from the back they bear the scars of the storm and sit in front of the rubble and debris left in its wake. (Troy Turner/CBC)

‘We will get there’

Mayor Button has had the busiest three weeks of his term.

From dawn to dusk, he was on the phone or on the computer, or meeting with people to facilitate the ongoing cleanup efforts.

« When we’re dealing with multiple numbers of people and multiple numbers of properties, it’s a monumental task, » he said. « All parties have spent a lot of time on this…but it takes time. »

Button says he’s always known Port aux Basques as a community full of people who care about each other, and he wasn’t surprised to see that shine through the devastation of the past few weeks.

Channel-Port au Basques Mayor Brian Button said the city is busy helping the province’s emergency response team compile the data needed to determine financial assistance for those affected by Fiona. (Troy Turner/CBC)

People are understandably upset when the city isn’t always able to provide the answers they need, the mayor said. Button says he’s felt the brunt of that frustration at times over the past few weeks, but he doesn’t harbor any resentment or ill will.

« I totally get it. I get it. If I were you, I’d probably be doing the same thing wondering, you know, what’s going on? » he said. « If I thought people weren’t working and we weren’t putting in the effort to try and get there, I’d be fuming and roaring; I’d be the first to do it. »

He is pleased that the city is able to assist the provincial response team on site by providing the valuable local knowledge needed to assess the fallout from the storm.

He says it has been an eye opener for everyone involved and realizes this may not be the last storm of this magnitude to hit the town of 4,067. But the priority right now is dealing with the effects of Fiona and rebuilding a community that has suffered greatly.

« It’s going to take time, but we’ll get there, » he said. « I’m confident we’ll get there. I’m confident we’ll rebuild our community and be stronger tomorrow than we are today. »

A house near downtown Port aux Basques is on the verge of collapse but still standing. (Troy Turner/CBC)

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