Nfld. & Labrador

Newfoundland's fishing towns were built to survive, but Fiona changed the game

Houses that had stood against the worst weather Newfoundland had to offer are now gone.

Houses withstood the worst Newfoundland weather — until now

Heavy machinery clears up washed-up buildings and rubble in the harbour in Burnt Island, N.L., on Sept. 27. Post-tropical storm Fiona left a trail of destruction across much of Atlantic Canada. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

For generations, Cory Munden's family has been building and living on the same piece of oceanside land in the southwestern Newfoundland town of Port aux Basques.

The town is a former fishing village, and like many of the houses destroyed by post-tropical storm Fiona on the morning of Sept. 24, the Munden family home was built by fishers. The land on which it stood was bought by Munden's fisherman grandfather because it was close to where he worked, and it was protected by an offshore island.

For 70 years, the houses on that land withstood the worst weather Newfoundland had to offer.

Then Fiona hit.

Munden is now among those who worry storms like Fiona — forecast to become more frequent as the climate changes — will change the face of Newfoundland for good, wiping away its historic, weather-hardened fishing communities one by one.

"All of the traditional living-near-the-ocean spots, those are all old properties that dated back since the dawn of time, right?" Munden said. "That's where all the fishermen settled."

The Island of Newfoundland is rocky, rough and unforgiving. Most of its communities are former fishing villages, tucked away into coves, bights and bays along the coastline.

WATCH: Drone's-eye view of Fiona's damage in Port aux Basques 

Drone video shows devastation in Port aux Basques, N.L.

5 months ago
Duration 0:53
Footage shot over Port aux Basques, N.L., shows the damage caused by post-tropical storm Fiona.

"They settled in these secluded places because they were aware of the power of the ocean," said Andrea O'Brien, the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador's provincial registrar. "They built their homes far enough back from the high tide and from any kind of storm surges so their homes will 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 stages that often dot the waterside in these communities. A fishing stage is a shed-like building often sitting atop a platform that reaches out over the water, held up by wooden posts. Fishermen would unload their catches there, splitting their fish on sturdy wooden tables.

Colourful fishing sheds have come to define the province's historic allure; they're easy to spot in tourism ads. O'Brien said she doesn't know how they'll ever withstand storms like Fiona.

"I think with those buildings gone, it really does change the face of how this place has been for centuries," she said, adding that she's not sure what, if anything, can be done about it. 

Buildings sit in the water along the shore following Fiona in Rose Blanche-Harbour Le Cou. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Munden points to the dormant fishing community of Petites, about 40 kilometres east of Port aux Basques along Newfoundland's remote southern shore.

Petites was resettled by the provincial government nearly two decades ago. Before then — and before the 1992 cod moratorium that put an end to many of these communities' local economies — the town had been home to fishers since the mid-1800s.

Fiona destroyed buildings and stages in Petites that had withstood more than 100 years of ferocious Newfoundland storms, Munden said.

"That was a sheltered harbour," he said. "And this Fiona storm came in and levelled it."

Port aux Basques was settled year-round in the 1700s, and it was a thriving fishing town until the 1992 moratorium. The community is now home to about 3,500 people, down from about 4,000 people five years ago. Before Fiona plunged it into the headlines, it was perhaps best known as the place to catch the ferry to Nova Scotia.

A narrow island sits just offshore from the town's most densely populated area. Until Fiona hit, the island shielded those homes from the sea for centuries.

Destroyed houses perch on the edge of the rocks after Fiona hit Burnt Island. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Munden said he worries for those whose homes are still standing but could be hit by the next big storm. Like many whose homes were destroyed by storm surge, his family was denied any insurance coverage for their loss. Storm surge coverage isn't an option with most insurers.

"I mean, what are we going to do, we're going to move every property that's on coastal water? That's impossible," he said. "People need protection from these type of events. We can't leave them high and dry like this."

Amanda Dean, the Insurance Bureau of Canada's Atlantic vice-president, says insurance providers want to partner with the federal government on a program to cover those whose homes are now in harm's way as the climate changes.

That should happen alongside discussions about where people should build in the future, Dean said. 

"Just because we've been building in a certain way for several hundreds of years doesn't mean that that's necessarily the way we should be building going forward," she said. "It's an awfully tough conversation to have."

Meanwhile, the Newfoundland and Labrador government announced plans Tuesday night to help those on the southwest coast denied by their insurance companies. The aid includes compensation for the land on which destroyed houses stood, or help finding a new lot to rebuild on.

Munden said some are simply moving away. 

"It's changed the community, it's changed the landscape, and it's going to change the dynamics," he said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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