Sunday, October 6, 2013

Have You Ever Found Yourself in the Path of a Hurricane?

The Atlantic hurricane season is from June 1 through November 30 and the last few years were quite active with many powerful storms forming and sending bad weather to the east coast of Canada. Until recently, it was rare for full-fledge tropical storms or category 1 or 2 hurricanes to hit Nova Scotia and Newfoundland but warming ocean temperatures means storms are getting more powerful and they tend to gain strength rather than loose steam like they used to when they barreled up the coast. Fortunately, the 2013 hurricane season has not produced many storms and none of the ones that have formed have had any dramatic effect on eastern Canada…yet.

September 20th, 2010 started out much like any other day but word started to spread quickly that a strong category 4 hurricane that had formed earlier that week was headed straight for Newfoundland and was going to hit dead on as a tropical storm. Later that day, the warnings went up and the city got busy preparing for the worse; the storm had picked up strength and was headed straight for Newfoundland as a Category 1 hurricane. I remained unconcerned as many thought the storm would most likely head out to sea like all the rest. But the next morning when I stepped outside and was greeted with an eerie calm and a purplish tint to the sky like none I had ever seen before, I knew we were in for a wild ride. September 21st, 2010, a day I will never forget. That was the day hurricane Igor hit Newfoundland.

Until the very last minute, I admit, I didn’t take the warnings seriously. Big storms have hit Newfoundland before. The year I moved to St. John’s the city experienced a record-breaking winter that saw 21 feet of snow fall over 5 months and many other blizzards and tropical storms had hit in the years following so I was used to harsh weather. However, when the storm was upgraded from tropical storm to Category 1 hurricane, I started to worry a little. The forecast for that day and into the night was severe; 140 km winds, 200 mm of rain and meter-high storm surges. I charged my phone, found some extra batteries, flashlights and candles, made sure I had some non-perishable food items at the ready and prepared for the worse. My apartment was located on the corner of Bond and Prescott right downtown, close to the harbor and in what came to be known by residents on that corner as a wind tunnel. During winter storms, it seemed that that particular corner gathered a lot of snow and experienced very heavy winds and I assumed this storm would be no different.

I can’t remember now what time it was when the weather started to pick up but I think it was somewhere around late-morning to mid-afternoon. To me it seemed like any other miserable windy, rainy day in St. John’s. My internet remained connected and although the power did flicker a few times, it did not go out. I continued with my daily tasks around the apartment, taking a break to check on the situation outside from time to time. It didn’t seem windy where I was located but I could see some debris blowing around on the street below and the occasional person struggling to walk up the hill. Other than that, it still just seemed like any other stormy day in Newfoundland. When darkness fell, I noticed that some people had lost their power. As the evening went on, more and more lights went out until my house and the other three houses on my corner were the only ones who still had power. Still, I was not convinced that this was a bad storm. St. John’s experiences power outages all the time during storms and I was prepared for mine to go too. I spoke with my family back in Nova Scotia who were concerned about the storm that was said to be battering us in St. John’s and assured them that all was well, the storm was obviously not as bad as everyone was saying it was. At least not from my point of view. It wasn’t until I left home that evening to join a friend for a drive around the city that I saw the real destruction that had been occurring while I thought the storm had mostly gone out to sea.

Igor hit Newfoundland as a strong category 1 hurricane after many thought it would just brush the island and went down in history as one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the island. The devastation was tremendous. While I sat in my protective bubble on the corner of Bond and Prescott, many parts of the island, including the capital city were in a state of emergency. To this day, I don’t know why my particular corner remained untouched when just a few hundred meters away from my doorstep, century-old trees were toppled, streets were flooded and impassable and homes and cars were damaged. As my friend and I drove those dark, deserted streets that night, announcers on every radio station were warning people to stay home. Shops were in darkness, police and first responders were everywhere, debris was scattered across yards and roads and traffic lights were not working, making every intersection in the city dangerous to cross. Sirens could be heard non-stop. The city was in total chaos.

My power never did go out. It remained on the entire time while some of my neighbors and friends from all over the city were without power for almost a week. Some restaurants managed to open with the help of generators but with limited services and most shops remained closed for days. Many people I know sustained major damage to their homes and properties. Newfoundlanders are tough and are used to bad storms. I lived in St. John’s for ten years and had seen blizzards like none I had ever witnessed back home in Nova Scotia but the city never shut down and the army never had to be called until Igor hit.

What was ironic about the timing of this storm was it was only mere weeks from the time I planned to move from the province. I had lost my job and planned to start over again in Nova Scotia or wherever any future employment brought me. My time in Newfoundland certainly did end with a bang. The remnants of Igor stuck around right until it was time for me to leave for good. When it was all said and done, one man had lost his life when his driveway collapsed and he was swept to sea and countless others were left with homes that were in ruins. Some communities were cut off from the outside world for weeks due to washed out bridges and homeowners filed for more than 65 million dollars in damages within the first two weeks after the storm hit.

Just a little over three years later, some communities are still trying to pick up the pieces left shattered in Igor’s wake but, in true Newfoundland style, the people remained strong, communities came together and no one was left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives alone. Homes may have been broken, cars may have been swept away in floods, belongings lost in a sea of debris…but the spirit of the people remained intact like it always has and always will. While looting and chaos seems to be common when a natural disaster of this magnitude takes place in other larger cities on the mainland, I heard of no such things going on in the days following Igor. What I witnessed was people coming together to help their fellow neighbors, all the while, keeping that positive and humorous demeanor that Newfoundlanders are known for. I was not born in Newfoundland and my Newfoundland friends tease me about never being able to become a true Newfoundlander because I was born on the mainland but witnessing how the people came together after such a devastating event made me proud to have been able to call The Rock my home for 11 years.

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