Visitors should brace themselves for dramatic changes along the 65 kilometres of beaches and coastal roads of Prince Edward Island National Park this summer, after last September’s post-tropical storm Fiona obliterated parts of the northern coastline, flattening forests and sucking huge sections of the island’s iconic red sand beaches out to sea.
“Eco grief is a real thing,” PEI National Park experience manager Tara McNally MacPhee said, referring to the sadness people can experience because of changes in the landscape caused by climate change.
“People have an affinity to these locations, maybe they’ve been there since childhood and now they’re bringing their kids to these places. There’s a special place in our visitors’ hearts for these locations, and they’re going to see a drastic change.”
Still, the picturesque island is primed for a busy tourist season with operators scrambling to repair and rebuild cottages, golf courses, restaurants and resorts. PEI, with a population of just over 170,000, swells in the summer with more than one million visitors, making tourism one of the main economic drivers of the island in addition to agriculture and fisheries.
One of the hardest hit areas of the island was North Rustico, a picturesque fishing town and popular tourist destination with beaches, seafood restaurants and gifts shops. Fiona’s two-metre storm surge washed away homes, left gift shops teetering and flooded businesses, such as the Blue Mussel Café, which stands more than a metre off the ground on stilts.
During the storm, a metre of water poured into the restaurant, destroying its two kitchens and bar. Some of the restaurant chefs and a retired home builder have been working all winter to rebuild the kitchen in time to open for the May long weekend. “It’s a bit of a race but we’ll make it happen,” said Steven Murphy, who co-owns the Blue Mussel Café with his wife. “We feel like we’re pretty lucky that the building was still there.”
At nearby Rustico Resort Golf and Tennis Club, eight of its 20 cottages were flattened by the storm, which brought 150-kilometre-an-hour gusts, knocked out power to most of the province, and toppled thousands of trees. While the golf course and restaurant are set to reopen, the remaining 12 cottages are still in varying degrees of disrepair, resort owner David Saunders said.
“Some probably won’t be ready for summer so we’re just fixing what we can and doing what we can,” he said. “The cottages are a big question mark for us right now.”
Meanwhile, dump trucks are hauling dozens of loads of soil to remediate parts of Mr. Saunders’s waterfront property where the storm washed away 12-metre-deep chunks of the coastline.
In PEI National Park, the powerful storm sheared up to 10 metres of coastline – sizable erosion that normally takes several years to occur, according to Parks Canada climate change specialist Garrett Mombourquette. In one location, staff built an artificial dune made of granite covered in sand to avoid losing the roadway, but mostly the park is being left to a natural recovery. Already, new sand dunes are already starting to slump – a sign of Mother Nature healing herself, Mr. Mombourquette said.
In the heart of Cavendish, the storm crumpled the asphalt driveway, uprooted a thicket of trees and ripped shingles off many of Fairways Cottages, owner Sandi Lowther said. She and her husband have recently replaced cottage roofs with stronger steel. Instead of replanting trees, the couple plans to add a berm and large shrubbery – landscaping that won’t topple power lines or destroy property when the next storm rolls in.
“The sheer level of devastation Hurricane Fiona did to our beautiful island – we were all in shock afterward. It was our fourth year dealing with catastrophic events impacting business for us,” Ms. Lowther said, referring to Hurricane Dorian and the pandemic, which crushed the tourism sector. “And wham, we were hit with the worst of them.”
It’s been a long winter of work to get ready for the tourists in a province that is facing a dearth of tradespeople. Contractors have had to triage who to assist first, prioritizing the homeowners with houses hanging off banks over others with roof damage or seasonal cottage owners.
Matthew Jelley, the mayor of PEI’s Resort Municipality, bordered by PEI National Park, said the island was having record years in tourism before the pandemic. Last summer, he said it rebounded. And numbers look strong for this season, too.
“You’re down at the hardware store and everybody’s getting ready for the season. The fishermen are getting excited to be out on the water,” said Mr. Jelley, also an owner of the amusement park Shining Waters Family Fun Park.
“Yes, there’s some extra work left by Fiona, but everybody’s digging deep and the resolve is there to continue to serve our guests and ensure Prince Edward Island remains a destination in demand.”