When you take your first step inside Patty Munden’s home, the crunching sound of broken bits of glass underfoot immediately draws your eyes to the floor.
But then, when you hear the rolling waves, you look up and see the open ocean through the shattered floor-to-ceiling windows — as if the house is floating — and an overwhelming feeling comes over you that none of the videos and photos of the destruction from post-tropical storm Fiona can prepare you for.
“It’s total chaos here now, but it was warm and cosy,” Munden said.
“This was the gathering spot for the Munden household. Like everybody who came home for holidays, where did they come? Here. This was home to not only us, but all of our family.”
To Munden, her plot of land was the most peaceful place on Earth, with a view better than any beach-front property “down south.”
She’d sip her coffee, count baby ducks to make sure none were missing and watch her grandchildren reach for starfish in the cove.
She feels differently now, ever since Fiona hammered Port aux Basques, in southwestern Newfoundland, six months ago, on Sept. 24, 2022.
“I’ll never trust the ocean again,” Munden said.
“We used to go down south. I don’t even know if I could trust myself to go in the ocean to swim. I just don’t have the same feeling anymore.… I haven’t even been on the Marine Atlantic ferry to go to Nova Scotia yet.”
Gesturing at what Fiona swallowed and then spit out, Munden said, “This is what you’ve got to look at now.”
The sounds of the outdoors are indoors — and as seagulls squawk and waves crash, a small bird flies inside, then out again. Snow blankets parts of the floor.
There are piles of sand, boulders, shards of glass and things everywhere: Archie comic books, VHS tapes, junked birch wood, Christmas bulbs, and, on the kitchen floor, a comfy and surprisingly clean-looking plush-top mattress that didn’t come from any of Munden’s bedrooms.
She’s a decorator who swaps out table linens and throw pillows each season. On a recent day, a smattering of that decor remains, bits of Christmas and Thanksgiving thrown around.
Listen to the documentary ‘Sea change in Port aux Basques, Newfoundland’ from CBC Radio’s What on Earth.
‘Cold, harsh feeling now’
For Patty Munden and many residents of Newfoundland and Labrador, there’s an endless bottom of feelings in the ocean: nostalgia, joy, contentment and comfort. Destruction, too, as the capabilities of the ocean have been experienced from tragedies at sea.
But the aftermath of Fiona is uncharted waters, and many are still trying to make sense of it.
“It’s like a cold, harsh feeling now,” Munden said.
Even if you haven’t been to Port aux Basques, you can probably picture it: houses scattered along the shoreline in a haphazard but picturesque way. It’s the version of Newfoundland and Labrador you see in tourism ads.
Most houses were here when the winding roads that connect them were just footpaths — with the land passed down from generation to generation. One front yard could be another’s backyard.
Brian Button, the mayor of Port aux Basques, did interviews with international media after Fiona, and told the outsiders that the placement of the houses looks random — dangerous, even — but it was actually strategic.
“People built their homes on the water because they worked from the water.… They done it, in the past, their forefathers, and then they’ve done it and it carried on a tradition,” he said.
“Some people look at the story and they see the visuals, and say, ‘Well, my God, why would anyone have their house sitting on the water?’ Well, it sat there, in some cases, for 100 years and nothing happened to it.”
Houses on the edge of the ocean aren’t just part of a marketing campaign. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have an undeniable connection with the water, and that connection shines through in identity, culture and especially in folk music.
Saltwater Joys, Wayne Chaulk
I was born down by the water, it’s here I’m gonna stay
I’ve searched for all the reasons why I should go away
But I haven’t got the thirst for all those modern day toys
So I’ll just take my chances with those saltwater joys.
Let me fish off Cape St. Mary’s, Otto Kelland
Take me back to that snug green cove
Where the seas roll up their thunder
There let me rest in the earth’s cool breast
Where the stars shine out their wonder
And the seas roll up their thunder
Little boats of Newfoundland, Roy Payne
When the little boats go out to sea from the shores of Newfoundland
God, do me a favour and guide them with your hand
Protect them from the dangers and fury of the sea
‘Cause those little boats of Newfoundland mean the world to me.
‘Beatin’ and the bangin’ and the crashes’
Newfoundland and Labrador has a disproportionate number of strong storytellers, so when you ask people who witnessed the storm to describe it, the answers are pretty illustrated — though perhaps not meteorologically sound.
“We heard the beatin’ and the bangin’ and the crashes,” Patty Munden said, describing how her husband had been caught in a wave that he managed to outrun, but not without leaving his body bruised.
“The first wave came, before the big one, and it knocked him. There was a railing on the fence, he grabbed it and it beat him up against the house,” she said.
“If he fell, he would have been washed out.”
The big wave — the one Munden calls “the Fiona wave” — came next.
The deafening whooshing of the ocean was offset by the silence of those watching it crash over their homes.
“No one said, ‘Oh my God,’ or anything. We just watched it in silence,” Munden said.
“After all the water came up, it’s like someone back there had a giant vacuum cleaner and it sucked it back out as fast as it came in.”
When the intention of the sea became more obvious, volunteer firefighters started banging on doors and blaring evacuation orders over a loudspeaker.
Munden didn’t know it then, but nearby at her 90-year-old mother’s house, a firefighter lifted and carried the woman out of her home as water gushed in, covering their feet.
Across the street from her mother’s house, Thelma Leamon, a 73-year-old grandmother, was swept out to sea. Her body was found the next day.
“There will never be another one like her,” said Norm Hinks, Leamon’s partner.
You can’t go home again
In all, 102 homes in Port aux Basques were considered a total loss. The provincial government promised financial compensation — at $200 a square foot.
But houses won’t be rebuilt by the sea.
“If we are to rebuild our community, we have to [realize] our traditional way of building by the sea is not necessary. We need to do it safely and cognizant of climate change,” Brian Button, the mayor, said.
Even if residents were allowed to rebuild on the water, Button says they don’t want to.
“Everyone I talk to — and I’ve talked to a good many — don’t want anything to do with living by the water,” he said.
“Mind you, these people have seen many a storm.”
Staying, selling, rebuilding, remembering
Patty Munden received her financial compensation offer and accepted it without countering or negotiating the amount.
She says she will start building a new home in the town’s new subdivision. It’s about a five-minute drive from the coastline, high atop a hill, and has houses in rows that could look like any town in Canada, with attached garages and paved driveways.
They probably won’t make it into a tourism ad. But it’s perfect for Munden.
“We’ve got a beautiful view of a pond and the mountains,” she said. “We got a second chance at life, and we’re going to take it.”
Six months after Fiona, not everyone has received their financial compensation.
Norm Hinks, who watched a wave take away his partner, Thelma Leamon, and most of his possessions, still waits on promised financial compensation from the government. Their house was in Leamon’s name and she didn’t have a will.
Hinks doesn’t want to live by the sea, but he does want to plan ahead. And while nothing will console his grief, he wants a sliver of his old life back: mainly, a shed.
But he doesn’t have the money to build it or the land to put it on.
The provincial government said that nearly $14 million in payments have been made to 34 property owners. These are part of the 74 packages that have been delivered to date.
For many of the houses near the shoreline that Fiona did leave behind, “For Sale” signs can now be seen in the windows.
“If it sells, we’re out of here … can’t get away from the wind, but get away from the water,” said Lionel Forsey.
Once demolitions are finished, Forsey’s house will be one of only a few left standing on his street by the water. After Fiona hit, he and his wife decided it was time to leave.
“I was very thankful that I was not one of the ones that lost my house, don’t get me wrong, but it was also one of the feelings, well, you had survivor guilt.”
He’s confident his house will sell, and he already has potential buyers.
Emma Power, a consultant with Fundamental Inc., a climate consultant company based in the province, says as waters get warmer, hurricanes are able to travel further north. She says storms will likely happen more frequently and with more intensity off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Impacts like what we saw with Fiona are becoming more likely, and we have to recognize that and start planning for it,” she said.
Quick to add that not every coastal community is at risk, Power said projections show that parts of some communities that sit at low elevation will be under water in decades.
A first step is simple and directed at municipalities: stop allowing development near the ocean.
Another solution — managed retreat — isn’t as simple.
“That is a whole other topic that has a lot of weight in terms of what it means for people and our culture and the connections we have to where we live,” she said.
Power has told municipalities that projections show their town hall and homes will be under water in 10 to 20 years and that managed retreat is an option — that is, simply situating buildings and infrastructure away from the coastline.
Delivering that news can be “very hard and very emotional,” she said, and it brings out a range of emotions — humour and denial being most common.
As someone who grew up in Conception Bay South, Power knows the connection to the water. But she said that moving a little farther away from it won’t change the identity and culture of a place that was quite literally built on the sea.
Compared with some other islands in the world, Power said, Newfoundland is in a good position when it comes to dealing with climate change, rising waters and coastal erosion.
“We don’t have a whole lot of people, and we have a lot of places to go.”
The province has so much land away from the water that Power sees Newfoundland and Labrador as being a safe haven and new home for residents of other islands around the world who won’t have higher elevation to retreat to as the climate continues to warm.
“It feels gross to think about marketing ourselves to people who are going to be displaced from climate change, but in the same time, people are going to be displaced from climate change, and if we can give them a place to live, that’d be kind of nice.”
Power said adapting to climate change — and perhaps even welcoming others — will only add to the province’s coastal culture.
“We need to recognize that the landscape is changing, we just have to change with it.”
What will rising sea levels and annual flooding look like in your community? Here’s an easy way to find out: an easy-to-use map of the future in Newfoundland and Labrador.
You don’t have to be an expert to see what the future looks like along the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Anyone can see what sea level rise and annual flooding will look like in the years and decades to come, with the help of user-friendly, interactive maps at Climate Central.
The tool lets you zoom in for a street-level view of any coastal community, and see how far the waters are expected to go.
“Climate Central references all the latest science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” said Emma Power, a climate change researcher and consultant. “It’s non-partisan and independent. Their methodology is laid out right in front of you. The transparency is excellent.
“The mandate is to distil all of this information, so it can be understood and then acted upon.”
The website has a wide range of maps and other resources
“We usually look at the sea level rise by year, and that’s because it’s just very easy to conceptualize that,” Power said.
She suggests starting on the “Maps and Tools” page.
- From that page, select “Coastal Risk Screening Tool: Map By Year”
- Enter a community name in the “Search Places” bar and press Enter
- Choose a map view type in the top right corner (i.e. Satellite)
- Click “Change Other Settings” on the sidebar to explore options
- Change the projection year using the slider on the left side bar. For example, by moving the slider, you can see how the expected water levels change with each passing decade.
- Zoom in and out using the + and – buttons on the right side, or by scrolling with your mouse.
Written by: Caroline Hillier | Edited by: Paula Kulig | Lead Digital Producer: Althea Manasan | Senior Digital Producer: Brandie Weikle | Audio documentary produced by: Caroline Hillier and John Chipman