Noah Richler divides his time between Toronto and Sandy Cove, N.S. His most recent book is The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, a finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing
The Atlantic provinces know what weather can bring, enough so that when one of my wife’s children was a student at King’s College in Halifax, she spoke not of returning to Nova Scotia, but “to winter.”
Here on the Digby Neck and Islands, the 40-kilometre-long peninsula that divides the Bay of Fundy from Baie Sainte-Marie and a natural wharf in the world’s best lobster and scallop fishing grounds, the knockout blow against which all else is measured was the Groundhog Day storm of February, 1976. Winds reached 120 kilometres an hour and the 217, the single road that runs the length of the promontory, was washed out at Seawall, effectively severing the Neck in two. Later, in 2003, Hurricane Juan wrecked Halifax – although Sandy Cove, the village on the Neck from which I am writing, was mostly spared. But “White Juan” dumped some 60 centimetres of snow in February, 2004, the blizzard Janus did the same in 2014, and the winters of 2015 and 2017 were not much easier.
Then, last weekend, came Dorian, which Nova Scotia Power described to me as “the most destructive storm we’ve yet seen.”
Prior to the hurricane’s landing, the mood in the Cove was phlegmatic. Folk here are never quite sold on the weather reports and check the skies for themselves. We listen to CBC forecasts that, depending on the day, we receive from Charlottetown, Saint John or Halifax, and we check Environment Canada for reports from Digby, Meteghan and Brier Island. Maybe the rain comes, maybe it doesn’t. But we were prepared for Dorian, taking it seriously and heeding the networks’ meteorologists who were tweeting its progress as others were doing about the hurricane that is Bianca Andreescu.
And in the way of things, old turns of phrase were given fresh meaning. Friday, “the calm before the storm,” was glorious, sunny and still enough for what may turn out to have been the season’s last sea swim. And as caution was in order, we “cleared the decks,” literally, storing even heavy metal patio furniture. We filled the bathtubs with water, made sure we had food and drink and that the car was filled with gas. We watched fishing boats, a number of them unfamiliar, tie up to the wharf (“any port in a storm”) three deep. Then we had dinner out, an unusual thing to do here, and waited.
The hurricane, downgraded to a tropical storm, hit early on Saturday afternoon. We’re used to great banks of fog crawling up over the woody point beyond the harbour like an enormous sea serpent on its grey belly, to the pummelling of wind and rain and snow, and to wet mists so thick that leaves catch them and, after they pass, it rains beneath the trees, but Dorian was much more than this. The Neck, at its narrowest here, is a mere three-quarters of a kilometre wide, and sheets of rain were travelling in from both bays, etching zigzag patterns in the air and, at one point, dropping what looked like wet snow.
After a couple of hours, the lights flickered and went out. Come evening, as was happening across the province (and does in any disaster-struck Canadian community, I’m sure), several of us checked in on other households, those of seniors especially. We were lucky, the only tree we lost was a lilac. In the Annapolis Valley, the farmers were not – a good part of their apple and corn crops were destroyed – and neither were our immediate neighbours, two enormous maples falling down upon their house. Against what would have been official advice – had we been in a position to receive it – we used a ladder to check the integrity of the roof, walls and windows. In the drenching rain, a neighbour helped me get my generator started before we tried, unsuccessfully, to do the same for a friend down the road and gave him warmth through company instead.
Ours was one of Nova Scotia’s 400,000 households without power (the number of people obviously much greater) – this, a staggering 80 per cent of the population. At dawn the next morning, wondering what else was in store, I lay in my cold bed listening to the CBC, national and local, on our battery-powered radio – a part of the kit advised by government emergency-management co-ordinators – waiting for information about what I should or was able to do in the aftermath.
A house guest had been expecting to travel to Halifax to meet his daughter but needed fuel. We had no idea what or if any gas stations were open – or, for that matter, if we should even be on the 217, a road so deeply rutted by seafood and cartage trucks that even an ordinary rain creates a serious hydroplaning hazard. I had a couple of days’ fuel if I ran the generator an hour every five, but, like so many others, had no idea if we’d be out of power for one or several days. (As I write, around 35,000 households are still waiting for power, some possibly waiting a full week for it to have been restored). A hospital, thankfully, we did not need, though someone else might have: That morning, a dead body washed up on the Fundy side beach, and, the next day, the flesh-eaten leg of a man still in its boot was found.
Astonishingly, or perhaps not, the CBC was of no practical use. You’d think a public broadcaster would be communicating vital information after an occurrence such as Dorian and quite reasonably expect, by district, information in the event of a medical emergency (Nova Scotia is already disastrously short of services on sunny days); a list of roads safe to travel; of gas stations that are up and running; news about the airport and flights; and regular updates on the restoration of services – for it to be making public service announcements, in other words, and for these to be broadcast on the hour. Instead, the CBC was reporting the hurricane as entertainment. We listened, repeatedly, to a Halifax reporter describe the tree as big as a fridge that had brought power lines down on the road where he was standing and, from Prince Edward Island, to the CBC Weekend Morning host’s breezy chat with a local musician cheerily describing her patio’s overturned furniture. I was told I could still catch one of the singer’s last shows, listened to a trailer for The Sunday Edition and was advised that if I wanted Hurricane Dorian updates, to go to the network’s Storm Centre online … where the CBC had also posted pictures!
Except that most of us could not. The CBC evidently had no idea that what “no power” means for Nova Scotians is no light, no water, no heat, no landline for those without analog sets – and no internet. In this province, even on the best of days, the so-called high-speed service of the major telecommunications provider, Bell Aliant, is a sham, so bad for rural users that uploading a 2 MB picture means other web-based applications drop out, and the cellular service is so awful that even the fella who lives at the foot of the local tower can be seen crossing the village in his truck to find a bar or two of reception. And so, CBC, when a hurricane takes out the power, and even if you do have cellular service, it is too overloaded to function; it means no one can access social media or the CBC’s online Storm Centre and its jolly photographs. No power means no contact.
Which is when the community kicks in. On the Sunday morning and early afternoon, the nearest open gas station open was in Middleton, 115 kilometres away. There were rumours a station was open in Lequille, outside Annapolis, and another on the Bear River (Mik’maq) First Nation, and then, after the ferries connecting Long Island and Brier Island were restored, that Westport was, too, but rationing gas to $10 a customer. Royce, in his 80s now, sells no gas but opened his general store in nearby Little River for the morning, and then later in the day, Chrissy Walker in equidistant Centreville opened her convenience store despite having been broken into on the night before. (“I have to keep it open,” said Ms. Walker, undeterred. “I’m all they got.”)
In Digby, the Sobeys superstore was shut and stocking shelves but had a generator, and the store manager, Wendy Leblanc, saw customers outside who’d noticed the lights on. She learned of families without water and babies without milk and diapers, and made the snap decision “to open a couple of tills,” which was all she could do, staying open until midnight. “The need was there,” Ms. Leblanc said. “It was crazy. People were caught off guard, they weren’t expecting the power to be out that long and my people put their own dilemmas aside. It was an amazing community effort. I never had so many hugs, never saw so many tears.”
What we have learned from Hurricane Dorian, but also the countless other “natural” disasters that have struck Canada in recent years – the Fort McMurray fires and the flooding of Canmore, Gatineau and High River come to mind – is that when, as will happen more and more, infrastructure fails, communities’ self-reliance is key. Haec olim meminisse iuvabit – “one day even these things will be pleasant to remember” – said Aeneas to his crew when, shipwrecked, they were so hungry they’d taken to eating their wooden plates. (My, what a popular boss he must have been.) We survive by reconciling ourselves to hard times and, more than simply moving on, revising them in a rosy hue. As folk were already doing when, on the Monday and Tuesday, stories of that self-reliance, and of NS Power crews being handed snacks and apple pie, started to surface; when, in the normally polluted night sky power-washed by Dorian, every star seemed four times larger; or when, the sight stirring almost ancestral memories, the fishing boats at the wharf headed out again.
Except that we are living in an ominous age, fear trumping nostalgia now and everything taking the guise of a warning.
This year, for the first time in the nearly 20 years I’ve been visiting the Neck, fields usually thick with clumps of wild blueberries had none. Nor did we have blackcurrants, white currants, red currants, quince. The winter was so long, and the spring so damp and cold (it lasted into July, when rains you’d expect in November lashed the Neck), that the bees didn’t come – and you shouldn’t have to live in the country for that to worry you. Mosquitoes never used to flourish here and not until last year did I ever think of buying air conditioning or a dehumidifier – it’s never hot like that here. But last year’s anomaly was this year’s climate normal and the rest of July and most of August were uncharacteristically sweltering, a change affecting not just humans but the oceans, too. Maine’s heated waters mean the lobster catch is shattering records in the colder waters of this, the best lobster fishing district of all, but that’s also a source of worry as Nova Scotia may simply be today’s brief stop on the lobsters’ unfinished migration. And last year, too, you could stand onshore and watch whales breaching mere tens of metres away. Nobody had ever seen so many whales – not a single old-timer will tell you otherwise – but they were hungry, too, and the seiners from New Brunswick and the Acadian French Shore using the whales as sonar to fish the herring out, were following them in outrageous proximity, pretty well assuring there’d be no food left and the whales would not be back, which they haven’t been.
All this is new, and scary, but privately owned utilities are not about to bury power lines at 10 times the expense of overhead ones when regulation demands they provide electricity at the lowest cost, and only the Green Party is talking about the “democratization of power” – that is, the reorganizing of electrical distribution and the creation of community hubs that might actually make a difference when the next disaster strikes.
And so, ironically, we have reached a point where the environmentalists of the left and, on the right, libertarians and survivalists, are thinking along the same lines: The state, when it is interested, cannot be depended upon, so get off the grid, create your own. I know I’ll be installing solar panels and a wind turbine when I can, and that my attitude to land and sea has been altered. I see the dwindling bounty of my surroundings differently now – more, as historically rural Nova Scotians have done for so long, as a larder, as a bank – and I’m in avid disagreement with the federal government (when will Canada ever learn?), bypassing the people and awarding the corporations they sidle up to monopolistic jurisdiction over our resources. I want independent fishers to flourish, but I also want my own trap, and think anyone living within a kilometre of the shore should be able to set one.
We’re alone out here, and it’s hard not to see the failings that natural events such as Dorian put on show, as harbingers of worse to come. No, it’s not an entertainment. There’s serious work to be done.
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