Newfoundland’s fishing villages were built to survive, but Fiona changed the game
ST. JOHN’S, NL — For generations, Cory Munden’s family has built and lived on the same oceanfront lot in the southwestern Newfoundland town of Port aux Basques.
The town is a former fishing village, and like many homes destroyed by post-tropical storm Fiona on the morning of September 24, the Munden family home was built by fishermen. The land it stood on was purchased by Munden’s fisherman grandfather because it was close to where he worked and was protected by an offshore island.
For 70 years, the homes on this lot have withstood Newfoundland’s worst weather conditions. Then Fiona knocked.
Munden is now among those who fear that storms like Fiona – which are expected to become more frequent as the climate changes – will permanently change the face of Newfoundland, wiping out its historic and weather-hardened fishing communities one by one.
“All the traditional places to live near the ocean, they’re all old properties that date back to the dawn of time, right?” Munden said in a recent interview. “That’s where all the fishermen have settled.”
The island of Newfoundland is rocky, harsh and unforgiving. Most of its communities are former fishing villages, nestled in coves, coves and bays along the coastline.
“They settled in these remote places because they knew the power of the ocean,” said Andrea O’Brien, provincial registrar of the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Foundation. “They built their homes far enough away from high tide and any type of storm surge that their homes would be protected.”
Fiona upended centuries of that wisdom in a single morning, she said. Looking to the future, O’Brien said she’s particularly concerned about the fishing stops that often dot the water’s edge in these communities. A fishing stage is a shed-like building often sitting atop a platform that extends above the water, supported by wooden poles. The fishermen unloaded their catches there and shared them on sturdy wooden tables.
Colorful fishing sheds define the historic appeal of the province; they are easy to spot in tourist advertisements. O’Brien said she didn’t know how they could weather storms like Fiona.
“I think with these buildings gone, it’s really changed the face of this place for centuries,” she said, adding that she didn’t know what to do, if anything.
Munden points to the dormant fishing community of Petites, which lies about 40 kilometers east of Port aux Basques along Newfoundland’s remote south shore.
Petites was resettled by the provincial government almost twenty years ago. Before that – and before the 1992 cod moratorium that ended the local economy of many of these communities – the town had been home to fishermen since the mid-1800s.
Fiona destroyed buildings and scenes in Petites that had withstood more than 100 years of fierce Newfoundland storms, Munden said. “It was a sheltered port,” he said. “And this storm Fiona came along and razed her.”
Port aux Basques was settled year-round in the 1700s and was a thriving fishing town until the 1992 moratorium. The community now numbers around 3,500 people, up from around 4,000 five years ago . Before Fiona dug it into the headlines, it was perhaps best known as the place to catch the ferry to Nova Scotia.
A narrow island lies just offshore from the most densely populated area of the city. Until Fiona arrived, the island had protected these houses from the sea for centuries.
Munden said he is worried for those whose homes are still standing but could be hit by the next big storm. Like many whose homes were destroyed by a storm surge, her family was denied any insurance coverage for their loss. Storm surge coverage is not an option with most insurers.
“I mean, what are we going to do, we are going to move all the properties that are on the coastal waters? It’s impossible,” he said. “People need protection against these types of events. We can’t leave them dry like that.
Amanda Dean, vice president of the Insurance Bureau of Canada for the Atlantic, says insurers want to partner with the federal government on a program to cover those whose homes are now at risk as the climate changes.
This should happen alongside discussions about where people should build in the future, Dean said in an interview.
“Just because we’ve been building a certain way for several hundred years doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the way we should be building in the future,” she said. “It’s a terribly difficult conversation to have.”
Meanwhile, the Newfoundland and Labrador government announced plans on Tuesday evening to help those on the southwest coast turned down by their insurance companies. The aid includes compensation for the land on which the destroyed houses stood or help to find new land to rebuild.
Munden said some just walk away.
“It changed the community, it changed the landscape, and it’s going to change the dynamic,” he said.
Workers begin cleaning up the damage caused by Hurricane Fiona on Burnt Island, Newfoundland, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. Newfoundland and Labrador is setting aside $30 million for residents affected by the post storm -tropical Fiona. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn