Erosion worries heightened in Magdalen Islands after Dorian slams East Coast

Erosion has always been a concern for residents of the Magdalen Islands, but when storms like Dorian sweep through the small archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the coastal damage is accelerated.

Mayor says 'retreat or withdrawal' may be necessary in some areas

Strong storms speed up the erosion of beaches in the Magdalen Islands such as this one. Marie-Ève Giroux of Attention Fragiles says Dorian did plenty of damage. (Marie-Ève Giroux/Attention Fragiles)

There's still plenty of cleaning up to do after post-tropical storm Dorian blew through eastern Quebec over the weekend, but it's not just just material damage worrying residents of the Magdalen Islands.

Coastal erosion of the archipelago's red-faced cliffs and wind-shaped dunes is a constant concern for island residents as, year after year, roads, bike paths, beaches and even homes are swept into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Powerful storms like Dorian only make matters worse.

"People are worried," said Marie-Eve Giroux, executive director of Attention Fragiles, a non-profit organization focused on sand dune restoration.

"It's a major issue for our island."

Her organization is still assessing the extent of the coastal damage but, as of Monday morning, it's already clear that Dorian had an impact. Strong storms can erode as much as 10 metres of beach in one fell swoop, she said.

Sections of the shoreline bike path were obliterated by the storm as were large swaths of the famous red cliffs that surround the Magdalen Islands. (Martin Toulgoat/Radio-Canada)

Last fall, residents were reporting record-breaking erosion after strong storms swept through, flattening dunes and chiselling away at the picturesque, but fragile sandstone cliffs.

The increasingly frequent storms are making things worse, according to Giroux, and she is not alone in blaming climate change for the coastline's accelerated degradation.

In some places, she said intervention is possible to protect buildings and other infrastructure. In other areas, as emotionally hard as it is to abandon property, residents will soon have no choice but to move inland, she said.

Residents worry road will wash away

Grosse Île Mayor Rose Elmonde Clark said there was no serious property damage and nobody was injured in her area, but she said the erosion is bad on the western coastline. 

She and others on Grosse Île, on the northeast end of the archipelago, are worried that Route 199, which connects all the islands, could wash out completely in its more vulnerable spots if a strong enough storm hits.

Such an event would cut people off from essential services which are spread out across the islands.

The roadway has been reinforced by Transports Québec in recent years, she said, but the erosion continues to worsen.

"We've seen storms like this before, but it happens more often with climate change," said Clark. 

Jonathan Lapierre, mayor of the Magdalen Islands, said residents who managed to get some sleep Saturday night woke up to "see their investments, dreams and goals they had set for themselves in the wind."

In some cases, authorities in the Magdalen Islands say people will have to abandon their homes or cottages because the erosion cannot be stopped. (Radio-Canada)

Sheds and garbage cans took flight, tiles were ripped from roofs, power lines were knocked down and entire cottages were pushed off their foundations.

"People are very emotional right now," he said.

Nobody was hurt, but boats, marina infrastructure, trees, electrical lines and buildings were damaged by the powerful, hurricane-force winds.

Mayor calls for strategic rebuilding effort

Looking ahead, Lapierre said island residents will need to make strategic choices when it comes to rebuilding. The population will have to "adopt a position of retreat or withdrawal" in certain sectors, he said.

"We also need help quickly to secure certain areas that have been affected by accelerated bank erosion," said Lapierre.

"In some places, the cliff is pushed back to the parking lot of a store. We cannot wait for any authorization from Quebec or Ottawa. We must act now."

Geneviève Guilbault, minister of public security, says Quebec will allocate emergency funds to the Magdalen Islands in the wake of Dorian. (Radio-Canada)

Lapierre has requested financial assistance from the Quebec government to help clean up the mess and he wants Quebec to act quickly. Though the damage has yet to be assessed, he said the bill could be high.

On Monday, Quebec promised to do just that. Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault said financial help is on the way.

"We will be there after the storm to help," Guilbault  vowed, though she did not estimate how much money would be allocated to the islands.

Restoring power quickly

According to Environment Canada, the centre of the post-tropical storm was located about 157 kilometres northeast of the islands. Some offshore buoys reported wind gusts at 150 km/h, with waves topping 20 metres.

At its peak, nearly everyone on the Magdalen Islands served by Hydro-Québec was without electricity, but the utility had restored power to most customers by Sunday evening.

Authorities have yet to assess the damage to properties in the Magdalen Islands after the tropical storm tore through the region with winds strong enough to move cottages. (Bruno Leliévre/Radio-Canada)

About 200 customers were without service Monday morning. Hydro spokesperson Jonathan Côté said power should be restored to those customers by the end of the day.

Gaspé to the Lower North Shore

As for mainland Quebec, residents fared a bit better, but there was still cleanup to be done. Part of the Gaspé Peninsula lost trees and the waves were threatening some costal areas. 

On the Lower North Shore, there was some property damage.

The shore along Quebec's Gaspésie region was hit by high waves when post-tropical storm Dorian blew through. (Radio-Canada)

"There are houses with the siding gone and shingles and trees down across the Hydro lines," said Randy Jones, mayor of Gros-Mécatina, Que., in an interview with CBC Montreal's Daybreak on Monday.

Sheds were blown over, greenhouses were damaged and the "waves were huge," he said. Several communities in the area did lose power, but it didn't take long to restore electricity.

"Everybody stayed home as far as I know. There were some people who had some real bad nights of it. The wind kept them up all night. My daughter was one."

With files from La Presse canadienne, Radio-Canada and CBC Montreal's Daybreak


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