The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Newfoundlanders identify with the ocean. Now some are moving inland.

The ruins of a home in Port aux Basques, Newfoundland and Labrador, on Sept. 26. It was destroyed by post-tropical storm Fiona. (Frank Gunn/AP)
8 min

Scott Strickland built his life by the water.

The 51-year-old Newfoundland man descended from generations of lighthouse keepers who helped guide sailors safely to Port aux Basques, named for the Basque whalers who sought refuge there five centuries ago.

When Strickland’s family moved to the community at the southwestern tip of Newfoundland and Labrador, his father took a job with Marine Atlantic, a ferry service. Strickland, a real estate agent, bought a house with magnificent views — so close to the water that from his back window, it’s “two jumps and into the ocean.”

But after post-tropical storm Fiona pounded Atlantic Canada in September with hurricane-force winds and a ruinous storm surge, Strickland’s view no longer brings comfort. The storm, one of the worst in Canadian history, leveled fishing stages, washed homes away and left many others, including Strickland’s, uninhabitable.

He doesn’t yet know where he’ll relocate, but there’s one certainty: It won’t be anywhere near the water.

“Being on the water was exactly where we felt at home,” Strickland said. “But now, that’s all changed. Now, there’s scars — deep scars that affect you every time you look out.”

Fiona damage is widespread in eastern Canada

Months after Fiona, the people of windswept Port aux Basques and other former fishing communities in the province are grappling with emotionally fraught decisions, including where and how to rebuild in a world where climate change could make intense storms more frequent.

In Newfoundland, where 90 percent of residents live within six miles of the rocky coastline, picturesque oceanside towns with brightly colored homes are not only the stuff of tourism campaigns but also are a way of life. But for some, the sea that has long powered their communities is now a cause of trepidation.

In hard-hit Port aux Basques, some of the 3,500 residents are debating whether to move farther inland.

Days after Fiona hit, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey told reporters that climate change would fuel more such storms. He said he hadn’t spoken to anyone who wanted to rebuild where they had been.

“Oftentimes, these people didn’t choose to build there in the first place,” Furey said. “Our province is beautiful because it was settled this way historically and culturally out of economic requirements to have the fishing stages and the houses close to the water.

“Times have changed — and we need to change with them.”

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René Roy, the editor in chief of the Wreckhouse Weekly, Port aux Basques’s newspaper, said Fiona “unquestionably” changed the relationship townspeople have with the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Some are considering a future elsewhere. Others already left.

It’s not just the landscape that’s changed, he said, but the people.

“People are saying, ‘I loved going out on my back deck or going out on my lawn and looking out over these rocks at the ocean and seeing the busters come over the rocks and spray up 10 feet in the air,’” said Roy, 51. “It was peace to a lot of people, and that’s gone. A lot of people now say, ‘It’s scary. I hear waves and look around.’”

Lori Dicks was one of those who enjoyed sitting on her patio to enjoy postcard-worthy views. In 2021, she built an extension to her house and opened Salon by the Sea, a hair salon. Then Fiona hit, shifting the foundation of her home and her future.

Dicks, 53, said she and her husband had always considered one day moving near their daughter, who lives elsewhere in the province, when they retired, but Fiona accelerated those plans. The couple plans to move this year.

“I don’t want to live by water anymore,” Dicks said. “That’s for sure.”

Everyone else is taking government money to move away from a Canadian island village. One couple is staying.

It’s not unusual for hurricanes to graze eastern Canada, although by the time they reach the colder waters of the North Atlantic, their strength has significantly dissipated. That has changed in recent decades. Fiona traveled over waters that were much warmer than normal for September.

It was the lowest-pressure storm to make landfall in Canada. It was the most expensive extreme weather event in Atlantic Canada, causing upward of $600 million of insured damage as it cut across parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Quebec.

But that total doesn’t reflect the full scope of the devastation. The Insurance Bureau of Canada said many affected residents lived in areas so prone to flooding that residential flood insurance coverage was often unavailable to them.

Federal government reports have identified increases in relative sea-level rise because of climate change as a concern for Atlantic Canada. The expected rise in some areas in the next century exceeds the global average, posing to coastal settlements a “substantial” risk of flooding and erosion.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s government summed up its future this way: “warmer, wetter and stormier.”

A tide gauge in Port aux Basques shows a rate of absolute sea-level rise ranging from 2.5 millimeters per year to as high as 3 millimeters per year, according to Phillip MacAulay, a national coordinator with a network that tracks the fluctuation of water levels for Canada’s federal fisheries and oceans department.

A “very bad combination” of factors was responsible for Fiona’s damage in the town, MacAulay said. Among them: The storm surge arrived around high tide and was aided by blustery onshore winds and large waves. That doesn’t mean that every storm will hit that way.

Some provinces and communities in Atlantic Canada have taken steps to adapt. Nova Scotia this year plans to limit how close to the shoreline new structures may be built. Officials in Port aux Basques are considering delineating a “red zone,” an area where it would be a danger to have homes in the future.

Norm Catto, a retired geography professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, said Newfoundland’s coastal communities also face other challenges: an aging demographic, a declining population and economic pressures.

“I don’t think anyone would argue that the coastline is not changing,” he said. “They’re seeing that in front of them. … If we’re looking at the small communities, the adaptation has to be put in the context of everything else that’s happening.”

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Some in those communities are choosing to stay, but the decision is seldom straightforward.

Peggy Savery and her husband moved from Port aux Basques in the 1980s for work. But, like many Newfoundlanders, they felt the draw of home and its “calmer, quieter pace of life.” The couple bought a blue house on the coast more than three years ago and spent time and money renovating it.

Their deck was the perfect spot to gaze at the stars or watch the ferries and fishing boats, they said.

The morning after Fiona struck, they left before high tide, locking their front door, thinking they would have a home to return to.

But the storm swallowed up much of it. One of their neighbors was swept away to her death. Savery’s belongings were strewn far and wide. A worker restoring power found a photo of her and her husband at their 11th-grade graduation in the rubble far from their home.

Savery is living with her husband’s niece. She said she has thought about leaving again — permanently.

“I would like to move,” said Savery, 59, “but our son loves it here and doesn’t want to move, so we’ve decided that … we’re going to make it work.”

Strickland’s home is still standing, but it sustained severe damage in the storm. Just before Christmas, he learned it would be condemned. All of the windows facing the water were breached, and the storm surge carried seaweed some 40 feet to the second floor of the house.

For now, he’s staying at a summer home some 30 miles away, waiting for information on next steps — and charting a new relationship with the water to which his family’s fortunes had been tied for decades.

“We had a storm Christmas morning and overnight that night, and the winds and the sea got pretty high,” Strickland said. “So of course, you’re the whole night just wondering, ‘Is the house still going to be there when you check on it?’ And we’re at our cottage, and we’re still — the anxiety is just lingering and it’s hard to explain.”