After Hurricane Fiona, Atlantic Canadians help each other out

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One certainty remains. The community spirit of Prince Edward Islanders and other devastated Atlantic Canadians cannot be destroyed.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on October 3, 2022.

OTTAWA—Not too many people are foolish enough to fly into a hurricane. Most people focus their efforts on trying to get away from them.

But last week, I joined the ranks of the storm watchers, those slightly twisted meteorologic amateurs who like to fly into the eye of the storm.

In my case, the trip had nothing to do with weather.

Instead, my high school basketball team planned a week-long girls’ reunion on Prince Edward Island, the starting date of which just happened to coincide with the arrival of post-tropical storm Fiona.

The team, which started playing together back in 1967, never gave a moment’s thought to cancelling the trip. After all, we are fighters, part of a high school girls’ squad that could beat anything.

Our multi-year undefeated record was testament to that as our coach, Cecilia Carter-Smith, reminded us when the storm battered our two-storey lodging.

We arrived in beautiful downtown Charlottetown a few hours before Fiona landed.

I flew in on an Air Canada turbo-prop from Ottawa, and midway through the flight, we hit a series of air pockets that literally got my praying for my life.

The 78-seater Q-400 flew at 35,000-feet, smack into the middle of headwinds that were a precursor of Fiona’s flight to Canada.

When the flight began, we were warned about potential turbulence by the captain. He wasn’t kidding. The plane was tossed from the top down and from side to side like a badminton shuttlecock.

At one point, the nose started to veer sideways with one wing leaning higher by the minute.

Luckily for everyone on the plane, the pilot was skilled enough to handle the challenge. Within about 20 minutes, he had permission to fly down to 15,000 feet which cut the buffeting considerably.

During those frightening minutes, you could hear a pin drop. Everyone appeared to keep silent counsel. For my part, I was repeating the rosary and trying to forget the fact that my grandmother died in a plane crash.

My mind was filled with doom and gloom, but prayer pushed it out until, finally, the plane descended to a more comfortable altitude.

The pilot finally broke the silence, calmly advising everyone what we already knew. The worst was over and we were now on a manageable flight path.

Upon arrival in Charlottetown, our team was commiserating on whether the hurricane would even happen or whether this was just a hyped-up storm prediction that would not materialize.

Just to be on the safe side, we ordered three pizzas, which turned out to be a good move as in the wake of Fiona, we had no electricity and no way of actually feeding ourselves as all restaurants were in the same powerless situation.

We were staying in one of the century-old homes owned by the Great George Hotel, a fabulous downtown heritage property which is just like a second home.

Our edifice was just down the street and our bedrooms were on the second floor. I was facing north, right in the windy path of Fiona’s wrath. The wind howled and the rain pelted, but it wasn’t until an ancient tree towering over the building was cracked by the storm that we began to worry.

In the end, two giant trees were felled on both sides of our house, but by the grace of God, neither of their oversized trunks hit the building.

We emerged unscathed the following morning, only to be confronted with the hard evidence of Fiona’s massive destruction in every community on the island.

Everyone was pitching in to help with the cleanup. In one instance, a family of 11, whose roof was decapitated by Fiona, was offered free lodging by the Murphy clan, generous owners of the Great George. The lodgings allowed them some respite from the elements while they hatched a plan to rebuild their home.

Neighbours pitched in to help neighbours, and no one was left wanting for food or water.

It truly was a community effort as the rebuilding began.

When we left the island almost a week later, there were still swathes of the province without power, and electricity crews were working double overtime trying to restore some form of normalcy.

Some natural wonders, like the dunes in the Prince Edward Island National Park and Teacup Rock, may never come back.

Other losses, like the iconic 100-year-old trees throughout the province, will be replaced. One certainty remains. The community spirit of Prince Edward Islanders and other devastated Atlantic Canadians cannot be destroyed.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.