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After Fiona: storm recovery begins as police confirm first fatality

A day after post-tropical storm Fiona left a trail of destruction across Atlantic Canada and eastern Quebec, residents of a devastated coastal town in western Newfoundland learned one of their own was its first confirmed fatality.
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A lobster boat grounded on the rocks at the wharf in Stanley Bridge, P.E.I. on Sunday September 25, 2022. After hammering Atlantic Canada, post-tropical storm Fiona has moved inland in southeastern Quebec, with Environment Canada saying the storm will continue to weaken as it tracks across southeastern Labrador and over the Labrador Sea. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Brian McInnis

A day after post-tropical storm Fiona left a trail of destruction across Atlantic Canada and eastern Quebec, residents of a devastated coastal town in western Newfoundland learned one of their own was its first confirmed fatality. 

As Fiona descended on Port aux Basques on Saturday, churning out 130-kilometre-per-hour wind gusts, police received reports that two women had been pulled into the ocean as their homes collapsed under the weight of an invading surge. One woman was rescued by local residents, but RCMP confirmed on Sunday that the second woman had died after being swept out to sea. 

Mounties said the 73-year-old woman's body was recovered from the water more than 24 hours after a massive wave struck her home, tearing away part of the basement. Her name was not immediately released.

"RCMP NL offers deepest condolences to the family and friends of the missing woman and thanks all who assisted in the search and recovery," police said in a statement.

Photos posted Sunday from Port aux Basques showed homes and outbuildings smashed or submerged on the shoreline, the result of a storm surge that raised water levels to a record high and swamped a residential neighbourhood on Saturday around 10 a.m.

Mayor Brian Button said the damage to the town of 4,000 was worse than first thought.

"The weather may have cleared, but the situation has not cleared at all," he said via Facebook. "This is not a, 'One day, we can all go back to normal.' Unfortunately, this is going to take days, could take weeks, could take months in some places."

By late Sunday afternoon, about 340,000 residents of Atlantic Canada had spent their second day without electricity.

In Nova Scotia, Premier Tim Houston surveyed some of the hardest hit areas of Cape Breton, where Fiona's wrath left many homes badly damaged. Arriving in Glace Bay aboard a helicopter, Houston spoke outside a car wash that had collapsed onto a nearby house.

"We know there are a lot of people … that don't have any place to go," he said. "Just driving around and seeing the damage, it's difficult to see." 

Amanda McDougall, mayor of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, said almost 200 local residents were forced to leave their homes. She confirmed that the Red Cross was setting up food trucks to help those running out of supplies. 

Despite downed trees, washed-out roads and widespread power outages, some Cape Breton residents decided to carry on with milestone events on Sunday.

Samantha Murphy, 35, said she was going to get married at a church in downtown Sydney, followed by a reception catered by someone with a generator.

Sitting in a hotel lobby with three bridesmaids, she wrapped floral arrangements and waited for her hairdresser to arrive while musing on the bright side of the extended blackout.

"I think it's going to be more romantic with candlelight," she said in an interview.

In Reserve Mines, about 15 kilometres east of Sydney, Darren MacKinnon was cutting up fallen trees, some of which had landed on nearby homes.

"Glace Bay and Reserve Mines look like a war zone," he said of the two Cape Breton communities. "Houses with roofs ripped off, trees down .... I know Cape Bretoners will help out their friends and family as much as they can." 

Neighbour Reggie Boutilier lost part of his roof and his shed was torn apart.

"The wind was very high coming through here," the 67-year-old tech worker said as he prepared to install some plastic sheathing. "It was just catching the peak of the house all night. The force was incredible."

On the north shore of Prince Edward Island, another area ravaged by Fiona, lobster buyer Leigh Misener pointed to what was once his office on the Covehead Wharf.

On Sunday morning, it lay upside down about three kilometres away on a front lawn.

"That’s our building," Misener said with a laugh. "Stop by anytime." 

Despite his wry humour, he said it was heartbreaking to see the destruction. The wharf is now an ugly vision of smashed buildings and upturned soil, as if an earthquake shook the place.

"The whole wharf's gone," Misener said. "Everyone's going to hurt from it."

Judy Profitt, who lives a few kilometres away on Brackley Beach, pointed to the Covehead Bridge and a now altered landmark — a small dune that stands next to the bridge.

"It's my favorite dune, but it's just been sheared off," Profitt said, her voice breaking with emotion. "I had taken a picture of that dune. After my husband died, (it was) laser-etched on his tombstone. To look at that dune now, it's just such a sad sight."

In the provincial capital of Charlottetown, Premier Dennis King said Ottawa had agreed to send 100 soldiers to help clean up the Island. 

"The magnitude and the severity of the damage is beyond anything that we've seen in our province's history," he told an online briefing Sunday, adding all Island schools would be closed Monday. "Efforts have already begun to clean up, but this will take a herculean effort by thousands of people."

Tanya Mullally, the Island's acting director of public safety, told the news conference that the cause of a recent death had yet to be determined, but preliminary findings pointed towards "generator use." She did not provide details.

The Island was not the only province poised to receive military assistance with the clean-up effort. Federal Defence Minister Anita Anand said Sunday that about 100 troops a piece were either in place or en route to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and P.E.I.

Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair added that Ottawa will work with provinces to determine what is needed for recovery from a financial perspective, especially for Canadians who have lost everything. But he said the immediate need is to provide food and shelter, which is why the federal government is matching donations to the Canadian Red Cross.

"Our first priority right now, of course, is the restoration of power and utilities and to open up those roadways so that we can get those essential supplies to the people that are going to need them," he said. 

In eastern Quebec, officials were heading to the storm-battered island chain of Îles-de-la-Madeleine, where high winds and storm surges caused flooding and road closures.

Provincial Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault confirmed that 30 and 40 people were forced to leave their homes, but no one was hurt.

In Ottawa, Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said  he has been in touch with the heads of Bell, Rogers, Eastlink and Xplornet to ensure they were working to restore disrupted phone and internet services.

In Halifax, a director with Nova Scotia's Emergency Management Office, Jason Mew, told a news conference that Nova Scotians should "hunker down," keep roads clear and limit gas consumption to only what they need.

The province confirmed that schools in several regions would be closed Monday, and a statement from the health authority asked those who can wait for care to delay visits to busy emergency departments. 

Bill Lawlor, a director with the Canadian Red Cross, said 266 people in Nova Scotia have registered for assistance from the organization and 176 had stayed in shelters.

By late Sunday afternoon, more than 242,000 homes and businesses in Nova Scotia were still without electricity. That was down from more than 414,000 outages on Saturday, a figure representing more than 80 per cent of Nova Scotia Power's customers.

In P.E.I., more than 82,000 Maritime Electric customers were still in the dark — a number representing more than 90 per cent of the utility's customers.

The numbers were much better in Newfoundland, where 2,200 homes and businesses were without power. Another 13,000 had no electricity in New Brunswick, most of them in the Moncton area and along the province's eastern shore.

As for Fiona, one of the strongest storms Canada's East Coast has ever faced, it moved into southeastern Quebec on Sunday, with Environment Canada saying it will continue to weaken as it tracks across southeastern Labrador and over the Labrador Sea.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 25, 2022.

— With files from Michael Tutton in Sydney, N.S., Hina Alam in Covehead, P.E.I., Morgan Lowrie in Montreal, Amy Smart in Vancouver and Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa. 

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

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