In Port aux Basques, NL, residents reel after Fiona destroys dozens of houses


Jocelyn Gillam knows she’s lucky to be alive after coming face to face with the post-tropical storm that destroyed part of her town in southwestern Newfoundland and nearly washed it away with a tidal wave.

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 held on to the landing gear for dear life.

The 61-year-old said she had been talking to family and neighbors when she turned her head and “saw Fiona coming.”

“It was brown, it was white, it was angry,” he said in a telephone interview. “You could see that he was coming for revenge.”

Post-Tropical Storm Fiona blazed a trail of devastation across parts of Atlantic Canada, leaving homes shattered, roads littered with debris and hundreds of thousands of people without power.

But few places have been as affected as the community of 4,000 people in Port aux Basques, where dozens of homes were destroyed and a 73-year-old woman died after being swept out to sea when a storm surge flooded her home.

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

“He went up but couldn’t find me because there was so much water,” he said. “I was under water so, so long.”

She said her brother-in-law called for help, and he and some neighbors were able to grab her when the water began to recede.

Gillam escaped with only a bruised knee, and the memories, she says, will live with her “forever and a day.”

“Last night I couldn’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 on my nose,” he said. However, she says that she is recovering and feels lucky that her house was not damaged.

Many in his city were not so lucky.

On Monday, residents escorted by provincial response teams sorted through mounds of rubble in torrential rain to salvage what they could of what was left of their homes.

A house perched on the edge of the rocks had an entire wall missing, the kitchen table and cupboard completely exposed on the warped wooden floor. About 30 meters away, another house was nearly flattened, its roof and side wall missing. Nearby, a stuffed animal and a blanket featuring characters from Pixar’s “Cars” lay under splintered wood.

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

As of Monday afternoon, he said, at least 80 homes had been destroyed or structurally damaged in Port aux Basques alone, but the number could rise as officials continue to assess the damage.

“For every roof that floats in the ocean, there is a family, there are stories and there are memories attached to that piece of infrastructure, and that’s what breaks the heart,” he told reporters.

He said officials were 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, a member of the Burgeo-La Poile provincial legislature, told the briefing that the immediate focus of relief efforts is to ensure people have shelter, food and clothing. While emergency shelter has been made available, he said all of the displaced are staying in hotels or with relatives.

The longer rebuilding effort will take more time and will involve coordination and help from the federal government. “We don’t have all the answers right now, but we’ll get there and we’ll have everyone’s support throughout this ordeal,” he said.

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

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

— With Morgan Lowrie Archives in Montreal

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