Pam Pardy checks up on some folks she introduced us to last year, after post-tropical storm Fiona upended their lives.
The clean-up to repair the wreckage caused by post-tropical storm Fiona on Newfoundland and Labrador’s southwest coast continues, a grim reminder for those directly affected on that September day. No one understands better, perhaps, than the mayor of Channel-Port aux Basques, Brian Button.
“There’s not a day that Fiona hasn’t been a topic of conversation or hasn’t been something that someone from the town has had to deal with,” the mayor admits. The infrastructure damage left by the historic storm that struck the town on September 24, 2022, was “catastrophic,” he adds.
As it raged, Fiona brought with it powerful rains, massive waves and a devastating storm surge that washed more than 20 houses into the sea. Strong, damaging winds with gusts up to 134 km/h were recorded in Port aux Basques.
“Just today I was on a conference call with the province about the work that continues, and many residents are dealing with different situations as it relates to their own property. And, you know, Fiona came with not only a lot of infrastructure damage, but with emotional turmoil as well,” he says.
Brian wishes he could find a way to forget, if only for a brief while, he adds solemnly. “I think that’s probably one of the things that I struggle with most. This has been pretty impactful on all of us, myself included. Mental health, for a lot of people, has deteriorated because of the impact of the storm. There’s been so many ups and downs, and I feel the reality of that probably more now than I did back in October and November, right after Fiona,” he explains.
But amid the wreckage, many also uncovered overwhelming gratitude, drawing strength from their good old-fashioned Newfoundland-style sense of humour. Take the photo of Krystle Collier that went viral last September. Krystle had lost her home, narrowly escaping the storm’s wreckage herself, the night Fiona struck the town. Next morning, when she returned to her what was left of her property, Krystle spied her refrigerator poking out of the rubble. In that infamous snap seen around the world, Krystle triumphantly held up two salvaged White Claw beverages she had been hoping to enjoy that weekend.
“It sure has made me laugh a lot to look back on how all that played out,” Krystle reflects. But beyond the laughter, it’s been the support of others that has helped the most. “Friends and family helped us. We have been supported so much by people that are close to us,” she adds, tearing up.
Area resident Jocelyn Gillam understands that sentiment all too well. Jocelyn, now 63, almost lost her life in the storm. As angry waves lashed the shoreline, Jocelyn stepped outside for just a moment, but was almost instantly struck by a rogue wave and nearly drowned.
“Some days are good and there are some days I just got to sit in my chair and try to calm myself down,” she shares honestly. If she hears water running sometimes, the memories of being trapped come back to haunt her, she admits.
“Most days I tried to get up and go on. I got my family and I got my husband, so you just got to go on for them,” she says, her voice cracking with emotion.
Jocelyn adds that she knows that “everyone has been through so much… The area where I grew up, there’s nothing there. One side of the road is gone. And you look sometimes and say to yourself, ‘I really can’t remember who lived there anymore,’ and that’s so sad.”
It’s devastating to see house after house torn down because they couldn’t be repaired, she adds. “Everybody works hard to build their lives, and it’s all been taken away in the saddest way.”
Friends of hers lost their home, escaping with only the clothes on their back, and another friend lost her life, taken by the storm and washed out to sea. “Some days I sit there in my chair and I think, ‘Why did God save me?’ ‘Why am I still here?’” Jocelyn admits. “Then I think, ‘He must have kept me for a reason, so I better do my best every day.’”
Jocelyn and her husband Brian just celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, and she said that day was one of celebration.
“It was the first day I can honestly say I didn’t think about Fiona, not once. But most days I question so many things. Like, why did I go outside that day? I went out and I looked over across the sea and I could see the weather coming. But I was nowhere from my own home. I felt safe. In a blink, a wave just took me off my feet,” she says.
While she still goes for therapy on her leg, on the day we spoke Jocelyn had been doing her usual weekly floor scrubbing - on her hands and knees of course.
She laughs. “Well, you know what? I come out in the mornings, and I goes over and I stands in the window, and I says, ‘Fiona, you’re not bringing me down today.’”
While she knows she’s resilient, Jocelyn explains that nothing has been easy since Fiona. “At first, there were days I didn’t dress. I didn’t even shower. I couldn’t. I didn’t have it in me. I just couldn’t do it.” But now, she puts her best foot forward each and every day - like everyone else in the town tries to do, she says.
“We are Port aux Basques strong. This is our home and will always be our home. I say to my husband, ‘If the time comes and we got to go, where are we going?’ We love it here. What happened to us all that day was Fiona’s fault. That’s the only thing we got to blame. It’s not the town. It’s not the people in it. Fiona was nasty to us that day, but we’ll get through this.”
Jocelyn has words of advice for anyone facing a hurricane or post-tropical storm. “Don’t be nosy like me. Stay inside. Go somewhere safe. Don’t think it can’t happen to you, because it can.”
Mayor Button understands where Jocelyn is coming from. Once you’ve been through a disaster, you finally get it, he says.
“No one really knew just how big of an impact Fiona was going to have. The day after, once we had a chance to see what we were up against, we knew that it was going to be a very big hill we were going to have to climb and this wasn’t going to be done in a short period of time.”
As much as anyone or any community can prepare, it’s never enough, he adds. “There’s nothing that can prepare you for the real thing. We watch things on television and we see events that are happening, whether it’s forest fires or flooding, and we all say, ‘My God, these people must be having some struggles and it must be so difficult. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.’ Well, we found ourselves in that exact situation, and we still find ourselves today still just trying to get through it.” Things have gotten better, but there’s still a long road ahead yet, he adds.
Krystle agrees, but she says the main thing is that people are healthy and they are safe and are preparing for the future. Her family of four currently resides in a home owned by her great aunt and uncle. While they will be there for a while yet, the family has plans to move into a new home in the near future.
“We have decided to rebuild in a newer part of town, far, far away from the ocean. It’s like a new outlook on life and we are excited to start to process,” she shares.
One of her first plans once they do move in? Krystle says with a chuckle, “Perhaps I’ll aim for round two of that photo once I’m moved into our new home. A photo op of a White Claw in my new fridge in my new home. Let’s see what happens.”