Velda Tapp-Pretty was asleep at 8 a.m. Saturday when a wall of water slammed into her bedroom window with a bang. For several minutes, it was like her home in Channel-Port aux Basques, N.L., was submerged in the middle of the ocean. She could smell it – seawater surging through the foundation, up into the bedroom of her small dark green bungalow.
Boulders the size of garbage cans flew out of the ocean, into the air and landed in her backyard.
“It was vicious,” she said. “You could hear the roar and the ripping and I looked out the window and the siding was going just like confetti at a wedding.”
When Ms. Tapp-Pretty opened up the door of her home, she didn’t recognize her street: The newly built apartment building across the road was gone, swept out to sea. The roof on the house next door to her flapped in the wind. Another house was cracked in half. Boats and ships were in the middle of the street in the town of 4,500 on the southwestern tip of Newfoundland.
“One wave took everything,” she said. “It’s total destruction.”
By 8:10 a.m., Ms. Tapp-Pretty, a 57-year-old home-care worker, realized she was in a life-or-death situation. She grabbed her cat, Krissy, leaving behind her other cat, Terri, who was too spooked to come with her – and got in her SUV. A roof in the middle of the road blocked her way, so she wove her Chevrolet Equinox through backyards and roads littered with televisions, mattresses and microwaves. Worried about nails puncturing her tires, she stopped to remove planks of splintered wood from the middle of the road.
When Ms. Tapp-Pretty reached her brother’s house, she began messaging with her neighbours, who had left their homes earlier. They wanted to know if their houses were still standing. She didn’t want to be the one to tell them. They were like family – the people who shovelled her snow in winter and shared home-cooked food with her.
“Everybody that I talked to said they felt scared and nauseous,” said Ms. Tapp-Pretty, who was only able to stomach two soda crackers on Saturday.
As she drove through flooded roads, with Krissy perched beside her, she thought of the famous song by Tom Cahill that Newfoundlanders sing, Thank God We’re Surrounded by Water.
“Nobody is singing that song today,” she said during an interview Saturday evening at her brother’s, as rain pelted in the background.
“When you’re a little girl growing up, this is the thing that you feared the most. As a child, you’re always scared of storms. This is it. This is what you grew up being afraid of.”
The heavy rain, powerful winds and vicious storm surges that pummelled the Atlantic coast on Saturday as part of post-tropical storm Fiona packed maximum sustained winds of 110 kilometres an hour, Environment Canada said.
Neighbours pulled a woman from the waters off southwestern Newfoundland early Saturday after a storm surge enveloped her home, causing it and several others to collapse into huge waves driven by hurricane-force winds. The body of a 73-year-old woman who was swept out to sea was recovered on Sunday.
The town remains in a state of emergency and Mayor Brian Button said the recovery is likely going to take months. “I’m not going to sugar coat this: We have a major recovery going on here. This is bigger than we have ever, ever seen here before. It’s been totally heartbreaking,” he said during a recorded statement posted on Facebook. “Take care of one another out there.”
On Sunday, people in town were opening up their homes and offering refuge to those in need.
“That’s what Newfoundlanders are all about,” said Ms. Tapp-Pretty. “We’ll get through it.”
She said she didn’t think much of it when on Friday night, ahead of the storm, she received a message from the town to pack a bag in case residents needed to evacuate. She has lived here for 15 years and is used to the raging coastal weather and wind that overturns tractor-trailers.
But Fiona was unlike anything anyone has ever seen. The sea smashed at least 20 homes, sweeping swaths of roadways into the Atlantic. Pieces of steel guard rails were crumpled in the middle of streets. Power poles were flung about like matchsticks and the wires were draped in seaweed. It looked like the community had been hit by a bomb.
All day Sunday Ms. Tapp-Pretty felt dread whenever the phone rang, afraid someone was calling her to tell her that her house was gone, too. “You’re not going to tell me no bad news are ya?” she said jovially as she picked up the line. Inside, her nerves were racked. She was worried about her beloved cat Terri, who she rescued as a kitten from a garbage dump. The house can be replaced, she said during an interview. “I just need to know he’s okay.”
On Sunday afternoon, Ms. Tapp-Pretty drove back to her neighbourhood, where search and rescue crews combed through the rubble searching for the missing woman whose body was recovered hours later. The woman, one of Ms. Tapp-Pretty’s neighbours, was last seen inside her home moments before a wave struck and tore away part of the basement around 10 a.m. on Saturday. Ms. Tapp-Pretty said the woman’s husband had been waiting for her in his truck in the driveway when the wave hit.
Newfoundland MP Gudie Hutchings expressed her condolences to the community and said she would be with them shortly. “It shows the power of the water,” she said. “Living in coastal communities, we know what can happen, and tragically the sea has taken another soul.”
As Ms. Tapp-Pretty made her way to her street, she encountered neighbours and friends on foot along the way, hugging and offering each other moral support. When she saw some walking with bags packed with belongings, she gasped. “Oh man,” she said, breaking down. “Oh my good Jesus Christ.”
When she finally got to her street, she saw it was reduced to rubble with one last home teetering on the edge of a cliff. Her own bungalow on a hill was the only home standing – a sign she said that not only was Terri okay but that she’s “got a lot of guardian angels.”
Still, she’s now questioning how life will ever be the same. How can she ever move back to living in a home surrounded by such carnage, up on a hill by herself? Moving is out of the question – she has a mortgage and who would ever buy her home after this?
“When you see the rocks that I see this morning come up out of that ocean – it’s like, ‘Do I really want to live here any more?’” she said. “I hope I never see another day like this.”