Jim Randall stands on his empty waterfront lot, looking at the wooden posts that once supported his family’s cabin in New London Bay, PEI.
A year after a storm surge caused by Fiona swept away his cabin, Randall says visiting the lot still causes him “sadness and a little frustration.”
But he is willing to show what happened here, as a warning.
“I’m talking about this, not for myself, but for my neighbors and other Islanders who will be affected by the next Fiona, because another one is coming,” Randall said.
“And if we don’t get our heads out of the sand and do something about it, then they will be the ones who will feel emotional and financial losses in the future.”
13 cabins disappeared
Randall’s cabin was one of 13 in the Hebrides, a low-lying peninsula along PEI’s northern coast, that disappeared on the night of September 23, 2022.
When Randall had his waterfront cabin built a decade ago, he knew there were risks of flooding. In fact, after post-tropical storm Dorian caused some water damage in 2019, he had the cabin elevated about three feet off the ground.
I’m not naive. We knew we were close to the boardwalk. But no one would have ever thought it would be as serious as it was. But that is the new reality.-Jim Randall
“The contractors told us at the time that this would withstand any flooding from that point forward,” he said. “Now, I’m not naive. We knew we were close to the port. But no one would have thought it would be as bad as it was. But that’s the new reality.”
Xander Wang says it’s clear the post-tropical storm woke many waterfront homeowners to that new reality.
Wang is an associate professor at UPEI’s School of Climate Change and Adaptation. As part of his research, the school tracks and forecasts rising water levels, coastal erosion and the impacts of large storms like Fiona.
Wang says that in the 12 months since Fiona, the school has seen a huge increase in the number of inquiries from beachfront owners and those looking to buy, who are wondering about the level of risk and what they can do to reduce it.
“These have become more common factors that people are considering: the rate of erosion in your location, are you seeing big storm surges in this area? So I’m glad to see more people asking about that,” Wang said.
“If you’re going to build something, you want to make sure it’s safe, at least for several decades. You don’t want it to disappear in the next decade.”
New development guidelines in process
Wang and his colleagues are also assisting the PEI government, which is working on new development guidelines for at-risk properties. They are expected to come out “in the near future,” according to a spokesperson for the province.
Meanwhile, the spokesperson said, “any new development that occurs on a parcel affected by flooding due to Fiona is being assessed… to determine whether it is feasible and reasonable to allow a rebuild to take place.”
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Randall says he’s not interested in redeveloping his lot or selling it, at least not until there are clearer rules to help guide buyers and assure them it’s a good investment.
“Things like building codes to make them stricter, so that you can’t build unless you build with 12-inch by 12-inch studs. And you have to have a story height so that a storm surge doesn’t affect the structures.” Randall said. “If we put it on the market, every potential buyer will want to have some degree of certainty about what he’s dealing with.”
That’s not to say the island’s waterfront property market has tanked since Fiona.
According to the PEI Real Estate Association, while the number of waterfront lots sold decreased from last year, sales of coastal homes and cottages increased.
Association president James Marjerrison notes that the risk faced by beachfront properties varies greatly depending on their location.
However, he said buyers are asking more questions.
“People want to know if there’s a storm coming, if this property is susceptible to erosion, certainly if erosion control has been done on the property; they want to know details like that. So I think that’s the most important thing right now.” . Marjerrison said.
Some of Randall’s neighbors in the Hebrides whose cottages remained in place during Fiona are taking their own measures to limit the risk in the future.
His next-door neighbor recently had his cabin raised.
We’ve needed repairs during a couple different storms, with Fiona being the third repair now.-Myrna Gough
On the other side of the peninsula, where erosion is the biggest concern, Myrna Gough has just repaired and fortified the rock sea wall she installed more than a decade ago.
Gough, who is also president of the Hebrides Homeowners Association, says the wall gives her some peace of mind, but it has its problems.
“We’ve needed repairs due to a couple different storms, with Fiona being the third repair now,” he said. “It is very expensive to do it now. There is controversy about it, and whether or not it does the job of protecting the coast, if the entire coast is not made of armor rock. And that is something that is being analyzed by the province.”
“We need to accelerate our investigation”
Wang says there is limited research on the effectiveness of armor rock, as well as other approaches to slowing erosion and protecting waterfront properties.
His school is starting to do more such research now and work to improve modeling tools that assess risk in 2023 and beyond.
“We feel a little behind, because before we knew that erosion was a normal and natural process. Now it is accelerating. So we need to accelerate our research to make sure we can catch up,” Wang said.
It’s all happening too late for Randall and some of his neighbors. Insurance policies do not typically cover damage caused by storm surge, so no one who lost a cabin received compensation.
The federal government and Insurance Canada are working together on a plan to make storm surge coverage more accessible.
Randall believes efforts like that will be needed to make waterfront properties like his worthy of future development.
“I think the coastal area will always have value,” he said. “There needs to be a collaborative approach between the government and the insurance sector, and individual landowners who can also take on some of the risk and responsibility, to find a solution.”