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Some in Port aux Basques, N.L., are conflicted about whether to rebuild or move away after a storm that threatened their lives and levelled their homes

Hurricane Fiona wrecked Brian Osmond's house in Port Aux Basques, N.L., while also sweeping him out to sea from his doorstep. He surveys the wreckage on Sept. 29.Photography by John Morris/The Globe And Mail

Brian Osmond was at his door last Saturday morning when the wave hit him. In an instant, he was underwater, bashing against boulders as the ocean dragged him out to sea.

The 61-year-old’s only thought in those frantic, frigid moments was to grab onto something. He grasped at the rocks, trying to crawl up the shore to safety. A moment later, his wooden porch landed on top of him, and he struggled to keep his head above the surface as his throat filled with seawater.

“All I wanted to do was try to live,” he recalled four days later, staring blankly at the cove where his life nearly ended. “I was just trying to stay alive.”

His brother, Stuart, saved Mr. Osmond by running from the road into the sea and pulling him up by the collar of his jacket. Mr. Osmond spat out a mouthful of water, took a gasp of air and his brother dragged him to higher ground.

“I told him ‘I thought you were gone.’ And then we both had a cry,” Stuart said.

Mr. Osmond shows the marks on his hands from when he scrambled to escape Fiona's grip.

Mr. Osmond’s narrow escape from death moments after he decided to evacuate his home in Newfoundland and Labrador has made one thing clear to him – he doesn’t want to live near the ocean anymore.

He lost everything when post-tropical storm Fiona roared across Atlantic Canada, and he says nothing will ever be the same. As he tells his story, he stands in front of his crumbled orange house, which was picked up by the waves and tossed with such force that his kitchen appliances slammed through the back wall.

As Newfoundlanders in the province’s southwestern corner clean up from a devastating storm surge that raised the ocean to unprecedented levels, they’re pondering a future further inland. Many here don’t feel safe living by the edge of the water anymore, as their families have for generations.

In a place like Port aux Basques, where the sea is celebrated in colourful murals around town and economic fortunes largely depend on the water, that’s a massive shift in attitudes.

Port aux Basques, named after the Basques whalers who used to shelter here, was settled centuries ago by English and French fishermen precisely because of its proximity to fertile cod fishing grounds. Having the sea as your front yard, and living with the fog and the tide, was always a way of life for them.

In Port aux Basques, a fisherman drags a tire toward his boat; a house lies damaged; an Army Ranger goes through recovered items, including a high-school graduation booklet.

It’s estimated that nearly 100 homes along Newfoundland’s rocky coast were left uninhabitable by ocean waves pushed inland by a powerful storm surge.

Dozens of buildings were reduced to little more than debris, blown off their foundations and carried away. Each day, the tide brings back more shattered pieces of wood, furniture and other remnants of people’s lives.

The damage stretches from tiny fishing communities such as Fox Roost and Burnt Islands to Port aux Basques, the largest community on this rocky peninsula that juts out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and is the hub for the Nova Scotia ferry terminal. Several hundred people in this corner of the province were left homeless, and are struggling with difficult questions about where – and if – they will rebuild.

“That storm changed everything,” said Jimmy Hardey, 68, who was piling debris from his lawn at the end of his driveway on Feltham Street. “From now on, whenever we get wind, that will be in the back of your mind.”

Until last Saturday, Feltham Street had been one of the prettiest lookouts in town. People would park their cars at the end of the road and take photos of boats leaving the protection of the big rocks that used to provide a breakwater. Today, a collapsed house leans precariously over exposed boulders that a week ago were buried underground and covered in tidy green lawns.

“My wife is adamant. She’s not coming back,” said neighbour Elias Osmond, 78, who shares a common surname with many in his community although they’re not directly related. His basement was flooded and his house stands just metres from a massive gash in the earth where his street used to be. “I don’t know if we can go back to living here. What choice have we got?”

Elias Osmond, 78, says his wife is unwilling to return to their home at the water’s edge.

Where to rebuild is a big question facing many coastal communities around Atlantic Canada, where tens of thousands are still without power a week after the storm. Coastal areas in parts of Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia suffered significant erosion and flooding, forcing some tough conversations about whether living by the sea is still worth it as the climate seems to be changing dramatically and violently.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey acknowledged parts of Port Aux Basques will look a lot different when it’s rebuilt. His province announced $30 million in funding, much of it going to people with uninsured losses who are trying to figure out where they will live now. He said Fiona was the worst storm in the province’s history.

“This is a wake-up call for many communities – not just in Newfoundland and Labrador, but across the country,” he said during Wednesday’s news conference inside the town’s council chambers.

People in Port aux Basques toss debris onto a pile.

It’s not uncommon for hurricanes to brush Canada’s Atlantic provinces, but the region’s colder waters usually weaken those storms significantly. Fiona, however, remained a powerful hurricane-force cyclone as it crashed into the region, causing as much as $700-million in insured losses, according to analysts at DBRS Morningstar, and perhaps more in uninsured damages.

Fiona set a record for the lowest recorded atmospheric pressure in Canadian history, according to the Canadian Hurricane Centre. That allowed sea levels to rise to its highest known levels which, combined with gale-strength winds and high tide, pushed the ocean further onto land than it ever had.

Many had evacuated prior to the storm’s arrival, but others chose to ride things out, expecting a violent but typical tropical storm in an area where high winds and bad storms are common. That all changed last Saturday morning when police in Port aux Basques started running door to door, telling residents to get out immediately.

Debbie Anderson pauses outside the Harbour Restaurant in Port aux Basques, where she works.

In nearby Burnt Islands, N.L., a fishing village of about 500 people, Debbie Anderson was nervously pacing back and forth on the morning of the storm. She’d woken up in darkness – the power was already out – and she kept watching the wild waves creep closer and closer. When her husband called from work, and told her to get out, she grabbed her dog and ran.

Her anxiety is palpable as she talks about the fears that another big storm could come and strike her home again. For now, she’s temporarily living with friends on higher ground, and says she’ll never feel safe living so close to the ocean again.

“We’re Newfoundlanders. We were born and bred in bad weather,” Ms. Anderson said. “But we can’t go through that again. If another storm comes, don’t know if I can stay in my house.”

Ms. Anderson is still waiting for her home to be assessed to see if there’s any structural damage to its foundation, and whether she can move back in. But many in Port Aux Basques say they won’t wait for that assessment – they plan to take whatever compensation money they can get, and leave.

“I love the water. But I’m terrified of it now,” said Ronda Battist, as she waited outside her modest two-storey house for electrical inspectors to check seawater damage to her wiring.

“I don’t ever want to see that again,” she said.

Dump trucks and heavy equipment rumble nearby, taking away load after load of debris. All the detritus of people’s lives are mixed into the muddy, rocky mess – baby photos, hockey cards, laundry and smashed tables and chairs. Homeowners silently walk back and forth from checkpoints to retrieve what’s left of their belongings, escorted by Canadian Rangers who want to make sure it’s safe for them to enter.

“My street looks like a war zone,” said Glenda Osmond, a local mother who now lives about six metres closer to the ocean because of erosion caused by the storm. “I don’t even want to look out my windows. My neighbour’s house is just gone. It’s an eerie feeling. I don’t want to be here anymore.”

Jamie Young cleans out his basement.

Jamie Young works nearby, steadily carrying out a mixture of mud, sand and rocks from his basement with a flat snow shovel. His house is still standing, but the sea smashed in his front window, and carried away his porch. His lawn that used to stretch out toward the water was pulverized by the storm, which stripped the land right down to the rocks, bringing the cliff about ten metres closer.

“I used to have a beautiful spot,” he said, taking a heavy sigh. “This is just heartbreaking.”

Stuart Osmond, who saved his brother but lost a 73-year-old neighbour to the storm, said he doesn’t know how people in his town will be able to go back to the way things were before. Not when they now know storms like Fiona are a possibility.

“Every year, it’s going to get worse,” he said. “I don’t know how we can go back to normal after this.”

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