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Eddie Sheerr on ‘perfect culmination’ Fiona

Meteorologist and NTV weather forecaster Eddie Sheerr visited Port aux Basques last week. – © Alick Tsui Photography / courtesy of Eddie Sheerr

By Jaymie White, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter – with files from René J. Roy

PORT AUX BASQUES — Among the most trusted journalists in the province is NTV meteorologist Eddie Sheerr, and all eyes were glued to his weather reports as post-tropical depression Fiona roared up the continent, headed for the Southwest coast of Newfoundland. It was Sheerr who reached out to Mayor Brian Button via telephone on Friday, Oct. 23 to give him a warning, something Sheerr had never done before. By then Sheer was certain that Fiona was going to hit the region harder than any storm had done before. What transpired on the Burin Peninsula during Hurricane Larry was in the forefront of Sheer’s mind when he decided to make that call. “Last September, when Hurricane Larry came through the Burin Peninsula, there was a storm surge that wasn’t predicted. Or, if it was, it wasn’t well predicted. Basically, most of the communities from Trepassey to Arnold’s Cove to Baine Harbour to areas around Marystown, saw a significant storm surge,” said Sheer during a visit to Port aux Basques last week.

“People had water coming in their basements. Fishing stages were damaged. Wharves were damaged. Some resettled communities had people in them, in their cabins. Some of those cabins were damaged, and some of those wharves were damaged. Nobody knew it happened until after the fact and, in my opinion, we were lucky no one was killed that night,” said Sheerr. “I felt – I don’t wanna say personally responsible – but I should have known that was a possibility.”

Sheer knew that Fiona was much bigger than Larry, and likely to hit harder.

“Luckily the storm was moving fast, and it wasn’t a significant surge, and it was a relatively small storm. Fiona, on the other hand, was a different animal. The storm was massive as it moved north of Bermuda. It had a ton of water with it. Just because of its sheer size, any area of low pressure that is that big will have a significant amount of surge with it, be it tropical or non-tropical. It was the strongest storm on record for latitude and that was before merging with the system coming off of the continental United States and Atlantic Canada. So when that happens, a big system will get even bigger. So knowing what I know about tropical systems and surge, I was extremely concerned for Southwestern Newfoundland, and the weather office in Gander was as well, they had pretty strongly worded warnings out for the South coast.”

Sheerr said because Port aux Basques would be the closest area to the storm outside of the Gulf, his main concern was that the surge there would be significant.

“Because of my experience with Larry and because of my knowing how vulnerable parts of the communities were to surge, a thought of mine was to give the mayor a call and give him my thoughts because, if I gave him my thoughts, they could take it however they like, and I was fine with that,” explained Sheerr. “But if I didn’t call and then when I woke up on Saturday morning and people had perished, I would’ve been beside myself knowing that a single phone call could’ve possibly changed the outcome.” Sheer spoke to his managers at work who okayed the phone call to Port aux Basques.

“They said to go right ahead, and I gave Mayor Button a call on Friday evening,” said Sheerr. “I said basically, ‘here’s my concerns, this is a very large storm – I know people who live in Southwestern Newfoundland are accustomed to storms – but this is going to be different. There’s never been a stronger storm that’s impacted the country.’”

Sheerr explained that, even though Fiona was well-forecasted, it was the strongest storm to make landfall in Canada’s history, a fact that puts everything in perspective.

“The surge was, basically, the perfect culmination of all three things: you have the tide, you have the fetch coming the right way, and you had the high waves and the wind. So basically, everything was pushing all that water, which was brought on the Eastern side of Fiona towards Southwestern Newfoundland and Port aux Basques was the closest to the storm. So it was a pretty obvious choice. This is where it was going to be the worst.” As someone who has covered storm surges and hurricanes during his career in the United States, Sheerr said it isn’t something that can be easily compared to what happened in Newfoundland with Fiona. “It’s hard to compare because Newfoundland’s geographies are different from where you see these things happening in the United States. We have a very rocky coastline with tremendous changes in topography very close to the water, which is not something you see in the United States. So typically in the United States you see a surge and it is over a relatively small area, 20 or 30 miles. This surge was 60 miles wide,” explained Sheerr. “This surge was the highest ever recorded. I think it was 2.85 or 2.78 (metres), somewhere in that range. That’s what was measured by the buoy, but just going and seeing how high the water actually came up, talking to some of the residents over the last day and a half, I think it was higher than that. The water came in like 30 or 40 feet above sea level. I mean, it’s not like these homes were right on the water. They were on the water but not on the shoreline. They are 10 or 15 feet up on the minimum and the water came up over that and went another 100 feet or so. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Sheerr said there isn’t much that can be done to keep the water back if similar surges were to happen.

“You can mitigate normal storms, run-of-the-mill storms, but when it comes to the force of the water that’s with this, it overwhelmed everything and if we ever get something that’s similar in strength, the same thing will happen and that’s the scary part,” said Sheer. “I know there are many residents in the area who are terrified of the ocean now, and that’s a hard thing to deal with.”

Sheerr is realistic about the likelihood of it happening again.

“I’d like to say to these people that they won’t have to worry about this again, but I can’t. This will happen again. It’s happened, not like this before, but speaking to some residents, there was high water like that here in 1974. There was high water like that in 2002. There have been some high-water events in the last few years, and now Fiona.”

Sheerr said there is no way of knowing whether or not storms like post-tropical depression Fiona will become a regular occurrence. “There is no indication that we’re going to see more tropical systems with climate change, but there is an indication that the ones that do form could be stronger, they could move slower, and if they’re moving slower, they have the tendency to potentially impact Atlantic Canada more as a whole.”

Sheer said that, according to a study published by the province in 2019 or 2020, Port aux Basques is one of the areas that will be most vulnerable to the rising tides and rising sea levels simply because of the low tidal ranges between low and high tide.

“In the report it said these areas are vulnerable to storm surge, especially with big storms that come in on the high tide, which is exactly what happened here with Fiona.”

One reason Fiona was so intense was due to the significant difference in pressure between the storm itself and the air surrounding it.

“Any low-pressure centre of strength is measured by its pressure. The lower the pressure means the more efficiently the air is being evacuated from the surface of a loft,” said Sheerr. “What makes the other difference is what is the pressure around the storm, because what drives wind is the difference in pressure between high and low. So when you have a very strong storm, generally you have what’s called a ‘large pressure grade’ in between the storm and the air that’s around the storm. So all that air is trying to come into the centre of the low to fill the low centre, which is what generates wind. When it came to Fiona, it was extremely low and the pressure outside of it was relatively high, and so you had a large area of exceptionally high wind speeds and relatively small areas of tropical storm force and hurricane force wind speeds.”

Warmer ocean temperatures were also a factor.

“The ocean temperatures this year, being so abnormally warm so far north, allowed the storm to maintain Category 4 strength for much longer than any storm previous to that, in the history of the Atlantic hurricane basin. So that did play a role in the storm being so impactful to the region. Once any storm gets north of Bermuda, even though it is still a strong hurricane, it will begin to undergo what is called Extra-tropical transition, which means it will start to lose its tropical characteristics and become more of a different structured cyclone. But just because it is called a post-tropical storm doesn’t have anything to do with strength,” explained Sheerr. “What people need to understand is it has to do more with structure than actual strength. Typically they are not as strong, but every so often you will get one that is.”

Sheerr admitted he wasn’t completely prepared for the images and videos being sent to him, proving that Fiona was even more severe that anyone predicted.

“I was getting images from our crew that was here, which is Don Bradshaw and Glenn Andrews, in the morning, and I was just taken aback by what I was seeing. I knew it was going to be bad, but to see the level of the surge was beyond what I even thought. I was just in awe at that point,” said Sheerr. “As a meteorologist, I get really excited about the weather, obviously, and watching Fiona form and come up here, for everyone else, they look at it a little differently, and to me it’s very exciting to watch that sort of stuff. But to see how it was impacting this area, Nova Scotia, and PEI, and then to translate that once everything was over to the human toll the storm took, and luckily it wasn’t a mass casualty event, but just to see people’s homes what were taken, from Burgeo to Port aux Basques, to grapple with that is hard. The human side to something like this is something I’ve never had to consider before.”

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