P.E.I. is gearing up for its first post-Fiona tourism season. A lot has changed
'The fact that it’s still standing, we can handle anything else after that'
This is part three in the CBC P.E.I. series Changed by Fiona, exploring the impact the post-tropical storm will have on the Island's people and industries moving forward. Links to the other three pieces appear at the bottom of this story.
Prince Edward Island's tourism operators have worked hard to get their shops, restaurants, accommodations and attractions ready for the 2023 season, but visitors will see a changed landscape compared to years past.
It's been eight months since post-tropical storm Fiona tore across P.E.I.'s North Shore, where tourists flock by the hundreds of thousands in the summer months to take in sandy beaches, lush coastal landscapes and quaint seaside attractions.
But the impact from the storm — including nearly bare fields where trees once stood and all-but-eradicated dune systems — cannot be hidden from visitors or fixed with a coat of paint.
"They will see the devastation and hopefully understand that, you know, we're doing our best to try and get it cleaned up, but it's going to take some time," said David MacNeill, an descendent of Lucy Maud Montgomery, whose novels set on the North Shore have helped turn the area into a tourism destination.
MacNeill now runs The Site of L.M. Montgomery's Cavendish Home on the grounds where the famed author grew up.
But the MacNeill's thicket, where Montgomery herself once walked and drew inspiration for her work, has been reduced to a few mighty trees.
"It's like losing a piece of history," MacNeill said.
"We've lost a lot of the old balm-of-Gilead trees. It's a type of poplar trees, they're quite old, quite large, and [Fiona] really opened up the whole property, basically clearing that property of the trees."
MacNeill said what was once 20 poplars has been reduced to just two, due to the destruction caused by both Fiona and post-tropical storm Dorian, which hit the area in 2019.
"I knew I was going to walk into the same situation, so it wasn't quite as shocking as the first time," he said. "But still, devastating."
MacNeill cleared the trees himself and repaired the roof of a building damaged in the storm because he couldn't find a contractor.
The site is ready and open for the year.
DIY post-storm renovations
A building boom in recent years meant there was a shortage of skilled labour across the province, even before Fiona caused more than $279 million in damages.
When Fiona caused largescale destruction at the Blue Mussel Cafe in the North Rustico Harbour, owners Christine McQuaid and Steve Murphy couldn't find a contractor to gut the building.
Luckily, their prep cook and maintenance worker had contracting experience, so they were able to do most of the work themselves.
"We got to work right away and it's been six months and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars through insurance to get to this point," Murphy said.
The couple initially thought they could clean and salvage some of their building and equipment, but later learned the salt water which inundated the restaurant meant almost everything had to go.
The Blue Mussel sits on posts about four feet off the ground, but it still took on about three feet of water in a storm surge event that completely flooded the small community.
"That was the most shocking part of the whole thing," McQuaid said. "To hear, like, everything's gotta go."
"The sad part is, as a guest, when you come in, you won't see. It won't look any different to you. It's going to look exactly the same as it used to," Murphy said.
The restaurant has opened for the season and the owners are optimistic for a strong year, saying they feel fortunate even though the damage to their business was extreme.
You gotta take the good with the bad... we're on one of the most beautiful spots on the Island.— Steve Murphy, Blue Mussel Cafe
"We had some neighbours in the harbour that their buildings aren't usable anymore. Their buildings weren't there, so I think that just we were relieved to see that it was here," McQuaid said.
"The fact that it's still standing, we can handle anything else after that," Murphy added.
Losing the magic
Unlike the restaurant, visitors at the Brackley Drive-in down the coast will notice a stark difference.
The site has two screens, which used to be separated from each other — and the road — by trees.
"Before it was a little magical, almost storybook-like. That you could turn the corner and come into a different place to be entertained. Now that has changed," said owner Bob Boyle.
"But we're working through some solutions. We're doing landscaping up front, some new lighting."
Fiona took down hundreds of trees on the site, meaning those screens are no longer tucked away.
The drive-in plans to use buses or tractor trailers to shelter the screens from one another and keep the viewing experiences separate.
"The joy was seeing that the screens were still standing, so the structural side of things were OK, but structures can be rebuilt and can be rebuilt fairly quickly," Boyle said.
"The trees … not in my lifetime."
Many trees were taken out by Fiona itself, while others weakened by the storm came down in another high-wind event weeks later.
"I think most people will understand this is a rebuild year for a lot of the Island," Boyle said.
Growing an environmentally-aware sector
The P.E.I. Tourism Industry Association said climate and environmental awareness will become a big topic for the sector going forward.
"We've talked a lot about regenerative tourism and sustainability and best practices from an environmental standpoint," said CEO Corryn Clements.
"This has brought that to the forefront again, to say, 'We do need to start talking about this more,' and we do need to be more active when it comes to sustainable measures.
"We can do a better job in taking care of the places that we promote and we're proud to live in."
When Boyle looks to the future, he's thinking about what trees he'll plant at the drive-in, even looking at some species that thrive in hurricane-prone areas like Bermuda.
The Anne author's relatives know their trees can't really be replaced, but MacNeill is also thinking about the next storm.
"I don't think it's if, it's when," he said. "A couple more storms and there won't be any trees left here. None of the old trees left anyway, so I'm pretty much prepared for that at this point."
Over on the harbour, the restaurateurs are also thinking about their proximity to the very force that wrecked their building.
"You gotta take the good with the bad, so we're on one of the most beautiful spots on the Island. We're right on the water. We're facing the sunset. We've had 30 years where we've enjoyed that view," Murphy said.
"Being this close to the water, it's real. The ocean's real. It's living and breathing and it can happen."
The newly rebuilt restaurant also has taken some flood-protection measures: plastic-coated floors and walls that can be removed in horizontal strips — only going up as far as the water does.
"We've had 30 years, so far, with that one storm," Murphy said.
"I think we're going to be OK for another 30 years."