New Brunswick

'It's like they blew up': Family devastated as 'heirloom' cottages smashed to bits

Peter Atkins owns two cottages that have been in his family for decades. By the weekend, they'd been crushed into a pile of debris and swept into a nearby field at Robertson's Point on Grand Lake.

Nothing left of 2 cottages where the Atkins family has summered for more than 95 years

Nothing but bits and pieces in a field are left of two Atkins family cottages on Grand Lake . (Submitted)

Peter Atkins imagines his two cottages, built on the shores of Grand Lake more than 80 years ago, being smashed to a pile of debris and swept into a nearby farmer's field.

"They're gone, it's like they blew up," said the Ontario native, whose family spends much of every summer at Robertson's Point.

"There's nothing left of them. They're boards in a field." 

Atkins's grandparents began going to Robertson's Point in 1920 and built a cottage there in the 1930s.

It was the first cottage to fall last week when Grand Lake suddenly rose over the point near Jemseg.

Up to four feet of water sloshed around that first cottage as well as the family's main cottage, nearly as old but made for year-round visits.

Strong heavy winds and waves washed both homes off their foundations, and soon the "two heirloom cottages" broke apart.

"They collapsed into ruin and are sitting in pieces in the field behind," Atkins said Tuesday.

The cottages were 4½ metres above summertime water levels and were raised another metre above ground level, he said.

Peter Atkins's family cottage before Grand Lake swept it off its foundation and into a field. (Submitted )

Although Atkins, a firefighter, has seen water in cottages before, he's never seen floodwaters like this, describing them as "devastatingly high."

At their peak Sunday, water levels in the Grand Lake area reached 6.84 metres — 1.8 metres above flood stage. Levels had dipped to 6.71 metres by Tuesday afternoon. 

Family heirlooms washed away

As happens in many summer communities along Grand Lake and in other lakes in the St. John River system, generations of the same families have converged on Robertson's Point each summer. Their cottages, often filled with antique furniture, are reflections of local, personal and political history. 

Cottagers come to the point from the U.S., United Kingdom and other parts of Canada, including Ontario and British Columbia, as well as from New Brunswick. 

"It's a little community down there, and that community has been devastated by this," Atkins said.

Family members are receiving bits and pieces of information about the flood from people who live in the area year-round. 

"Even a neighbour texted me a photograph of a family photo of ours that they saw washed up in their area," said Atkins.  "We're just trying to recover all that."   

Debris from destroyed or heavily damaged cottages was thrown ashore by waves at the longtime summer community at Robertson's Point, near Jemseg.

Atkins is still deciding when he'll return to the province and assess the damage.

"It's a dangerous place to be at the moment," he said. "Not only is the water high and has a lot of debris in it … it also has a lot of waste in it." 

Province should step in

Atkins said the family also has to decide whether to rebuild — and if it's worth it in the end.

But he has questions.

"I want to know why this happened," he said. "Why did the water go so high this year? If this is going to become the norm." 

The provincial government recently launched a disaster financial assistance program for people affected by severe flooding this spring. Under the federal government, the program covers eligible individuals, small businesses and municipalities but not recreational properties.

Atkins's grandfather built this cottage, which was twisted off its foundation soon after the water came up. (Submitted)

There have been requests the government make some provision for recreational properties since so many were destroyed by the fast-rising water. 

Greg MacCallum, director of the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization, said senior government officials were discussing the matter.

"This is a different scenario where many impacts are on recreational properties,'" he said this week.

"This is something that is under consideration by government. I do not have any indication what the intention is about that, but government is aware and sensitive to the magnitude of this issue."

Atkins said that if his family does rebuild, it will be a structure made for extremely high water levels.

One cottage held on for a while in high water but couldn't survive high winds. (Submitted)

He hopes that the province will provide financial assistance to seasonal owners and that there is a definitive word on the issue soon. 

"Insurance doesn't work in this situation because they categorize this as an act of Mother Nature," he said.

His property and contents were insured for $250,000, Atkins said.

"What would it take to rebuild those? Probably about that."

 A ripple effect

At its peak on Sunday, water levels in the Grand Lake area reached 6.84 metres — 1.8 metres above flood stage. (Submitted)

He said it's important the province consider aiding cottagers.

"As New Brunswick considers whether they want to assist seasonal property owners, they need to consider what would be the potential devastating loss of those seasonal property owners," he said.

"We spend a pretty incredible rate that helps the economy there."