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With inflation driving up the cost of rebuilding, and climate change threatening stronger storms to come, residents worry what else they must sacrifice to move forward

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Port aux Basques, N.L., as it looked on May 30. Many homes here are unfit to live in after post-tropical storm Fiona landed on Sept. 23, 2022.Photography by Lisa LeDrew/The Globe and Mail

Scott Strickland spent his childhood on the water with his grandfather, looking back toward a craggy shore built up with colourful homes and fishing stages in Channel-Port aux Basques, N.L. Laundry flapped in the wind. Porch lights glowed in the fog.

But now, eight months after post-tropical storm Fiona slammed into the historic fishing community founded in the late 19th century, the area of town where Mr. Strickland used to live with his wife, Andrea, is just a chunk of barren rock.

“Everything is totally dark downtown, right on the coastline,” said the 52-year-old real estate agent. “It’s just this very eerie feeling, especially if you grew up in that area and go and travel down these coastal streets. Everything is gone.”

More than $37-million in government money has flowed in recently to the hundreds of residents of the southwestern Newfoundland town who lost their homes in last September’s epic storm. Now the decision to stay and rebuild or leave is on the minds of many. Inflation has driven up the cost of building new homes. A lingering nervousness erupts whenever the weather turns. And it’s all shrouded in a wistfulness for a bygone way of life.

“You want to go back to the way it was, but you know it’s not going to happen,” said Mr. Strickland, who has been living with his wife at their cottage in the woods, a one-bedroom prefab bungalow about a 20-minute drive from the town. For the first time in his life, he no longer hears the moan of the foghorn or breathes the salty air. “It’s the end of an era.”

The costliest storm in Atlantic Canadian history washed away about 20 homes in the town, leaving behind rubble and debris, houses missing walls and roofs. Like more than 100 others in the town, the Stricklands’ home was condemned, lost to a monstrous storm surge that left seaweed strewn in their second-storey bedroom.

Their home, part of it more than a century old, overlooked Channel Head Island, where Mr. Strickland’s grandfather and great-grandfather worked as lighthouse keepers in the light tower, built in 1875. As a child he picked blueberries and beach peas on the island. Now it’s a mound of bare rock, scoured of its sod. The government wharf, the town’s de facto town square, is gone. So is the boardwalk. And to some, the warm feeling of home.

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Many structures in Port aux Basques are still leaning precariously after the storm surge pushed them and eroded the land below.

Arlene Clarke, a retired teacher, realized it was time to go after the devastation of Fiona. She felt the pull to be near her children and grandchildren in St. John’s. And the town no longer felt familiar. “People were withdrawn and wary,” said Ms. Clarke, who lived there with her husband for 40 years. “The sense of loss was overwhelming. There’s a quiet and stillness surrounding the area. People are saddened by the loss, and you can feel it.”

The power of the Atlantic has long been a source of trauma and loss for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. But after Fiona, in the face of rising sea levels, warming ocean temperatures and predictions that climate change will yield ever more ferocious and frequent storms in the future, even townspeople who for generations lived and worked on the ocean are scared.

Ms. Strickland, a 46-year-old employment counsellor, spoke with a shaky voice as she described a new fear of the ocean that overwhelms her when she travels into the town. “The ocean certainly always gave us a sense of peace and calm, but now that’s changed,” her husband added.

All told, Port aux Basques residents lost about 100 homes in a community of 4,000. Inflation has made it harder for residents to build again, and many are questioning whether it is worth it to do so.

There are many, however, who are not giving up on Port aux Basques. There is a prevailing desire among politicians and business owners to turn the page and look to the future – the impetus behind a recent trade show organized by the local chamber of commerce.

Provincial Minister of Industry, Energy and Technology Andrew Parsons, who is from the town, spoke about the bright future in mining and wind-powered hydrogen production for the area at the event last month.

“I think there’s more to look forward to than there has been for some time,” Mr. Parsons said during an interview, referring to the potential to produce “green hydrogen” by harnessing wind energy, a proposed wind-hydrogen project to export the fuel to Europe by 2025 and a growing number of mineral exploration applications. “I think there’s going to be economic opportunity that our kids and our grandkids are going to benefit from.”

Housing poses a challenge, as it does everywhere in the country, but especially so in a town of 4,000 where 100 homes have been lost. “That has a huge effect on the area,” Mr. Parsons said. “That’s the biggest issue we’re facing right now. … When you throw in the cost of living and inflationary measures, again it’s having an impact on the rebuild.”

The province says it has offered 99 settlement packages to residents in six communities, averaging about $405,000 each. All but a few have been processed. Some still haven’t decided where they will live. Others are waiting to see if the province decides to demolish more homes.

Meanwhile, the small cove where Mr. Strickland and his family lived for generations has gone dark. At night the constellation of porch lights and the glimmer of TVs is gone. During the day, the screeches of gulls and hubbub on the wharf have been replaced by jackhammers and rumbling dump trucks carting off people’s lives, and a way of life, one load at a time. For now, or as of this writing, Mr. Strickland’s home was the last one standing – soon to be demolished like the others in the old part of town.

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