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BI community comes together during crisis

Volunteers, staff and crews are already at work repairing the Burnt Islands causeway that connects an island part of the town to the rest of the community, located about 25 minutes from Port aux Basques, down the coast along Route 470. – © René J. Roy / Wreckhouse Press

By Kelly Bragg

Special to Wreckhouse Press

BURNT ISLANDS — The painstaking process of cleaning up may take another few weeks, but the healing process for residents will undoubtedly take much longer. This tiny

community of approximately 600 people was one of several on the Southwest coast that took a heavy blow from post-tropical depression Fiona on Saturday, Sept. 24. Contractors moved in heavy equipment three days later to remove debris from homes, wharves, sheds and stages.

Town Clerk Linda Thorne said at that time there was still a section of town that was impassable.

“We had two houses on the roadways and there was one that was damaged and was falling on the road and they were going to have to get that removed next,” Thorne said via phone on Tuesday, Sept. 27.

In total, 13 houses were damaged, and the number of sheds and stages destroyed or damaged were too numerous to count said Thorne. In addition, many commercial fishers lost their livelihood when the unprecedented storm surge wiped out all of their gear.

Like Port aux Basques, the Town of Burnt Islands also declared a State of Emergency on Saturday, Sept. 24 when Fiona made landfall, and officials there quickly realized they were dealing with more than had been anticipated.

Part of the picturesque community is situated on the mainland, but another section is situated on a tiny island that is connected by a causeway. The causeway was reinforced a few years ago, but the force of Fiona was simply too much for it to withstand, and the storm surge left it almost completely under water.

“For the residents in the area directly hit, it was definitely terrifying. Most of them moved out of the area. That’s an area that normally suffers from storm surge, but nothing like

this,” said Thorne.

Around town, residents have been gathering to share their experiences.

“I had a man in his 70s come by and say he’s never seen anything like it in his life,” said Thorne.

Thorne was born and raised in Burnt Islands and she can remember many times when bad weather would cause large storm surges during high tide and residents would be on edge. But like everyone else, she has never seen anything close to Fiona.

“Sometimes some of the wharves and stuff would be covered in water, but I mean I’ve seen pictures and videos of water coming in places where I thought it would never be

possible, like actual salt water.”

The town clerk has witnessed the aftermath first hand.

“It was just like someone put a bomb in the middle of the road and let it go.”

That’s why Thorne and others she’s spoken with to share the experience, including other town workers, are thankful that health care workers were put in place early to speak to anyone who might be need trauma counselling.

Staff from Western Health were quick to move into the area to offer mental health support and Thorne said that service was needed more than the residents realized at first.

“I really hope they took advantage of these people and really sat there,” she said. “Just to be able to talk. There’s so many people who have lost so much and they’re going through so many different emotions.”

Thorne realizes that some of the older residents might be a bit reluctant at first to sit with a mental health support person, because in a rural community it’s a service not regularly offered. Additionally, many seniors are not open to talking about their feelings to strangers.

But Thorne said that going through such a large scale natural disaster for the first time in the community may have opened their eyes. This event, she added, has made her

realize the importance of her own role in the community.

“I’ve been with the town for 11 years now, and I was actually speaking to one of the emergency management people yesterday who trained me when I started, and I never ever thought that I would have to use that training.”

Healthcare workers and those trained in emergency preparedness aren’t the only ones offering up their services. In tougher times, people living in rural communities like Burnt Islands seem to be more than eager to lend a hand.

“We’ve had a lot of volunteers, volunteers serving up soup and sandwiches to residents that have been displaced and for the workers that are here.”

A couple of businesses have also delivered drinks and meals to town workers and councillors who have been working hard, long days. Thorne said she appreciates the help so that the volunteers can continue to focus their efforts on the residents and staff who still need assistance.

When it comes to donations for food, immediate needs and eventual rebuilding, Thorne confirmed that the town is piggybacking with the Town of Port aux Basques’ fundraising efforts, which has included generous donations from across the province, the country and the world.

Volunteers working in the area are also playing a large role to provide for residents and ensuring they have what they need. Thorne says that’s important because in addition to the hardship of being without a safe place to stay, some people have transportation issues not just due to infrastructure damage, but because they have never owned a

vehicle or no longer have access to one to reach shelters and avail of goods and resources.

To make access simple and quick, Thorne said one woman volunteered to visit members of the community who were in need. She then complied a list of supplies, drove to Port aux Basques, collected every item, drove back and then laid everything out at the local school.

“Not everyone has a vehicle and not everyone is even comfortable getting something from a stranger.” Thorne explained. “So it’s much easier for them to just be able to go

up to our school and pick up the items they need from people that they know well in their community, instead of having to go to another town to get it. It just makes this easier on them during a difficult time.”

All of this co-operation has given Thorne an even greater appreciation for volunteers and the important role they play to keep a community together during a crisis.

“Small communities, I find more so than larger cities, really come together. I have a list of volunteers just waiting to be involved. I think that’s just the thing with smaller communities. They feel the need to be doing something, and unless they’re doing something, they really can’t rest. People want to be out and about and providing.”

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