Saturday night, nine o’clock. The wind and rain warnings have been dropped, it’s just ‘normal’ bad weather out there. The hurricane hit thirty hours ago. We’ve been eighteen and a half hours without power, and from the appearance of the streets, it’s going to be a while before they get things up and running again.
We knew this one was coming, and had time to stock up on bottled water, canned food, bread, and the Maritimer’s favourite treat, ‘storm chips.’ Some people tell me that they’ve added ‘Hurricane Wine” to the list. Post-tropical storm Fiona made her way up the coast as a Category 3 hurricane, the cone of uncertainty ever compressing and always keeping Cape Breton in its sights. We are just west of there. Perhaps a hundred kilometres, and the weather reporters took great pleasure in reminding us that winds are ‘anti-clockwise round a low’, so we would face the brunt of them. And the most rain.
Which we did. A good old fashioned nor-easter, whipping in with 100+ km/hour winds gusting to 120, 130, even higher, and somewhere between 100 and 200 mm of rain. That’s a lot of rain in a short time. Not up to the ‘monsoon on steroids’ levels of Pakistan, or the ‘once in history’ inundations of Brisbane and Lismore, but more than enough for a little island in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, normally known for its potatoes and its beaches and its cute red-headed orphans. Not for storm surges and power outages and destroyed harvests …
Friday night. 0215. We have venetian blinds on our windows, and we wake up to them blowing inward like sails. The latches on the windows have popped, and I climb onto a small footstool so I can access the top sills. I force the windows down, then relatch the clasps. The blinds subside, foresails in the doldrums. The streetlights show water racing in rivulets down the street below, ornamental trees whipping back and forth, a parked car shaking itself awake with flashing lights and a strident alarm. The rain is horizontal, biblical, the wind a banshee.
Suddenly there is a loud explosion, not thunder, and a purple flash bounces off the roiling clouds. For a moment I think it is a car bomb but then common-sense kicks in; a transformer has blown. The common-sense opinion wins as the lights click out and there is nothing to see, inside or out, just the hazy retina-memory of a purple haze. Where’s Jimi when you need him? I go back to bed, lulled to sleep by the gale.
Saturday morning, eight o’clock. A wind-whipped street, the rain still lashing the windows. I wake to a crossfire hurricane, to a tree outside the China Garden restaurant that wasn’t there yesterday, either dead or alive. I have no idea where it has come from, its shattered limbs splayed across the sidewalk. Slowly people emerge from their apartments and congregate in the corridor. Our neighbour lost a window, it blew in at two thirty this morning, rain and wind pouring into the bedroom. Luckily, she was able to reinstall it, complete, and minimize the damage. Another neighbour was not so fortunate, the frame held but the glass shattered, his living room floor a sodden and dangerous mess until there was light enough to see.
We call our daughter, who lives out in the country. A tree has fallen onto her house and appears to be resting on the roofline. The apple tree has been uprooted, as have the big poplar and the hedgerow trees in the community pasture across the road. The dogs are getting squirrelly from not being allowed outside for a proper run. She’s had no power since nine o’clock last night. She’s been boiling a kettle on the wood stove, and the edits to her new book are going well. “I’m fine,” she says, just before the connection is lost.
The phone zings with another alert from the Emergency Measures people, beseeching us to stay indoors and not put ourselves – or first responders – at risk. Most of us comply but there are always those who believe that they are special, that the rules don’t apply to them, who walk their dogs or stroll the neighborhood looking for images to capture and post on Facebook or Instagram. Down the street outside I see someone wandering along, obviously determined to get his morning routine completed no matter what the namby-pamby emergency officials might think. He steps into the road to avoid the fallen tree, but the car driving down Queen Street sees him in time and brakes to avoid running him over. Shame, really. Through the gaps in the seams of the windowsills, the wind cries Mary.
Saturday afternoon, four o’clock. The hurricane warning is ended, the bridge is opened to certain classes of vehicle. There is still a steady rain, but the wind has died down to a stiff breeze. People emerge from buildings and start to slowly navigate the streets. I walk down six flights of stairs and check the basement. It is dry, much to my surprise; I had expected at least some flooding. I go outside and check the parking area, there are some scattered branches and pieces of metal from a disintegrated air conditioner, but not too much. I had put my car in a nearby parkade for the night, so it would be under cover and away from flying debris. As I walk to get it, I see the upturned trees in our neighbourhood park, the broken utility poles and the downed wires. It’s going to be some time before we get power restored.
Saturday evening, seven o’clock. The phone service appears to have stabilized now, we’re getting messages and texts from across the country, people wondering how we’re doing. Apparently, the news film from the storm has been horrendous, people are very concerned. We have no television, and data downloading is iffy on the cell phones, so we don’t really know what’s happening outside our own little cone of survival. We light the propane burner, a relic from our camping days, and boil some water for pasta, which is then set aside and later added to the frying pan full of onions, tomato, black olives, and bacon. We grate some cheese on top and open a bottle of wine. It’s dark, but the storm lanterns remind us of campgrounds long ago and far away.
Sunday morning, eleven o’clock. We decide to empty the fridge and freezer and take everything out to our daughter’s place. Last week we fixed up a generator there, so she can keep her fridge and freezer going. We load the cooler in the car and navigate the streets of downtown, then the highway. The main roads are clear, and there are two half-kilometre long line-ups at the only gas station that appears to be open. Some people are filling up cars, others portable containers so they can keep their generators going. The highway is lined with broken power poles, the wire scything through stands of wind-blown corn, soybeans, cabbages. Trees are down in yards, along hedgerows, in the woods beside a river. A camping trailer lies on its back, wheels upturned, looking like a fat puppy waiting for a belly rub.
Sunday afternoon, two o’clock. One of Victoria’s neighbours turns up with a chainsaw and a tractor. Half an hour later, the tree has been cut into pieces and pulled away from the house. He refuses payment. “If I’d known you were going to offer, I wouldn’t have come.” We are amazed that the only damage was a dent to the eavestrough, and a squashed pinecone on the roof. The squirrel that lived in the old red pine is a bit perturbed as he gets dragged for a free ride out across the grass.
Sunday afternoon, five o’clock. Friends contact us. They have (had) a cottage up on the north shore. They went out to check on it and found that the top half had blown off. They found this in a field a few hundred metres away.
They went to the cottage and found that the storm surge had dragged the bottom part of the cottage, plus the furnishings, fridge, stove, etcetera, out to sea. There is nothing left but the expensive pilings they installed last year, to keep the floor from being flooded at a high tide.
So now they have half a cottage, but it’s the top half. What the heck do you do with that?
Sunday afternoon, six o’clock. We get our power back. One of the benefits of living downtown, I suppose, and on the main transmission line that feeds the government offices, the hospital, and other important locations. We are an unanticipated consequence, but I’ll take it. Thirty-nine and a half hours is a long time in the dark, but most people are going to experience double that or more. It’s raining again, but nobody notices it without the wind assist.
Monday morning, eight o’clock. Friends from Ottawa e-mail to say they’ve just got back from Europe and seen the footage from Fiona. “Must have been terrifying to live through,” they say. “Please let us know if there’s anything we can do to help.” I reply immediately: “The ATMs are down, and the liquor store is closed. Please send money and scotch.” There is no response for a while, and then: “You’re a Leeds United supporter, you must be used to misery and anxiety.” Did I say ‘friends’?
Monday afternoon, five o’clock. It’s been three days since the winds started to pick up, since I returned from parking my car in the parkade, out of the reach of flying debris. For next time, we now know that we need one of those old-fashioned transistor radios, the battery-operated ones, so we can listen to CBC and figure out what’s going on outside our own little bubble. We followed the traditional advice of having enough food and water to last 36 hours but now know that we should probably have double that, enough for five or six days. We need to figure out how to connect the pump on the well at Victoria’s place to the generator, so she can continue to have water. These are all important ‘lessons learned’.
The island – indeed, the whole of the Atlantic region – is a landscape of shattered dreams. Houses decapitated or washed into the sea; twelve metre waves producing historically high storm surges; thousands of trees down, tens of thousands of people without power. There are photographs of fishing boats washed up onto bridges, of barns and silos exploded, of roads ending in a jagged sinkhole. Most of us know that this storm has set a new benchmark. The lowest air pressure ever recorded in Canada. The highest wind gusts for the longest time. The rain. The waves. The storm surge. All future storms will now be measured against the fury of Fiona. But we also know that these benchmarks will be challenged, perhaps not this year but in the years to come.
The time (and cost) required to rehabilitate the region is incalculable. The Atlantic hurricane season officially runs until 30 November. That’s nine weeks away. One can only hope that we don’t get another big storm before then. The Farmer’s Almanack is predicting that the winter of 2022-2023 “will remembered as a time to shake, shiver, and shovel – a winter season filled with plenty of snow, rain, and mush as well as some record-breaking cold temperatures.” We’ll all be looking forward to that. As long as the roofs and windows are fixed, there should be plenty of wood to burn.
As Bob wrote and Jimi sang,
And the wind began to howl, hey; All along the watchtower