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Damage at the wharf in Stanley Bridge, PEI, on Sept. 25.Brian McInnis /The Canadian Press

As world leaders, diplomats and scientists continue to gather in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, to debate climate change this week the people of Canada’s smallest province are already coping with the climate emergency’s damage.

Prince Edward Island is still shaking off the effects of Hurricane Fiona, which hit the island and its neighbouring Atlantic provinces with ferocious force on Sept. 23. Damage was extensive across Eastern Canada; on PEI, 95 per cent of the population was without power two days after the big storm.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada says that much damage to residential property was in high-risk areas and flood plains where insurance was not available. “As a result, the overwhelming majority [of the costs] for this disaster will be borne by government,” the bureau says. The provincial government announced some storm relief funds on Sept. 30 and proposed a record $1.1-billion, five-year capital budget on Nov. 2, focusing on infrastructure and climate change.

Insurable damage to PEI’s buildings and infrastructure has been estimated at $220-million. “The cost is still being compiled, but early indications point to close to half a billion dollars in damage,” says Vicki Tse, communications officer for PEI’s Emergency Measures Organization.

“There are holes in the roofs on hotels in Charlottetown. It’s hard enough to find someone who can fix the roof on your house, harder to get someone who can go up 10 storeys to do repairs.”

Jacqueline Desroches, commercial sales and leasing, Colliers International in Charlottetown

Individual islanders were asked to pile up all their debris for pickup by provincial crews before Oct. 31. After that, pickup resumes in the spring, because crews need to get ready for winter, Ms. Tse says.

“Cleanup efforts can be expected to go well into 2023, and this will be supported by additional resources from other provinces,” she added.

One challenge is acquiring the concrete, steel and other building materials needed to rebuild as the resources go beyond what the province itself produces.

Getting these to the island is an obstacle, but the logistics are being managed, says Jacqueline Desroches, commercial sales and leasing representative at Colliers International in Charlottetown.

“Materials come by truck, via ferries and over the Confederation Bridge [which connects PEI and New Brunswick],” she says. “Both were out for a few days, but damage was relatively minimal and they’re up and running. There’s still a holdover of supply chain problems that started during the pandemic, but we’ve gotten used to those.”

Another of the biggest challenges to restoring PEI’s infrastructure after Fiona is finding people to do the work. “There are holes in the roofs on hotels in Charlottetown, for example. It’s hard enough to find someone who can fix the roof on your house, harder to get someone who can go up 10 storeys to do repairs,” Ms. Desroches says.

The biggest concern though, is that Fiona is a harbinger for a future filled with bigger, fiercer and more frequent storms. “This [storm damage] is a direct line to climate change,” said Dominic LeBlanc, federal minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and Infrastructure.

Climate change has loomed in the background as a long-term threat to Prince Edward Island for years, but Fiona has brought home the immediate severity of the threat.

On Nov. 2, PEI Premier Dennis King tabled the province’s capital budget, proposing to spend a record $1-billion focusing on infrastructure investment over the next five years, including $308-million in the coming year.

The five-year plan includes specific climate-related measures, such as $10-million to bolster eroding shorelines and boost defences against extreme weather, and funding to make the island’s school bus fleet fully electric by 2030.

Protecting PEI’s shoreline infrastructure is a long-term need. A provincial climate change risk assessment released in October, 2021, predicts that, “nearly all Islanders are likely to be directly or indirectly affected by coastal erosion in the future.”

It’s also an urgent need, as the province needs to get ready for next year’s tourists.

“The damage is unprecedented,” says Doug Dumais, community engagement assistant for Charlottetown. The $220-million toll compares with the record $500-million in revenues from tourism in 2019, before COVID-19.

As Canada’s smallest province – the Greater Toronto Area is 1.25 times as large in area – PEI arguably has more at stake than other locations in repairing and recovering its buildings and infrastructure as fast as it can. The island’s economy depends almost entirely on agriculture, fisheries and tourism, all of which got hit hard by the storm.

“Fall is usually a big month for golf on Prince Edward Island, and the courses were forced to close in October. If you’re a resort operator and you’re hosting a golf tourist package, you didn’t have anybody come,” Ms. Desroches said.

Getting ready for tourists is complicated by the needs of residents, she added. “The storm hit multi-unit apartment buildings hard, because the residential vacancy rate on Prince Edward Island is near zero and there were few places for displaced residents to go,” Ms. Desroches says.

As the island province continues to repair and rebuild, leaders meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh for the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are seeing if they can ratchet up measures to prevent more widespread disasters.

The outcome of their talks is uncertain; the world is already on track to miss the earlier-agreed upon target of keeping global temperatures from rising beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels, and the consequences for islands like PEI that are barely above sea level will be severe.

“Some of the impacts of climate change could disrupt daily life and livelihoods on PEI,” the province’s climate report warned last year, predicting widespread damage and in some cases, some people having to relocate as the coastline surrenders to the sea. It has taken only a year for the prediction – and the cleanup – to materialize.