Even though the ocean tried to kill us, I still want to live by the sea

This firsthand article was written by Tara Pyfrom, who lives in New Brunswick. For more on CBC’s First Person Stories, see the frequently asked questions.

Either you are lucky or you are unlucky. When you live by the sea, by birth or by choice, you live with the aftermath of yearly hurricanes. As someone who falls into the former category, being born by the sea does nothing to make the reality of our warming planet any easier to bear.

For six months of the year, between June 1 and November 30, my family and I watch the ocean and the weather forecast. We know the names of meteorologists as if they were our educated friends around a dinner table. Words like millibar, eyewall, and wind shear are as much a part of our vocabulary as school, the weekend, and dinnertime. Memories of Andrew, Katrina, Sandy, Floyd, Frances, Jeanne and Matthew leave goose bumps on our necks and quicken our heartbeats in our chests.

We wait with bated breath as these storms grow from infancy to toddler to angry teenagers. We know that the appearance of a hollow hole in the center of the infrared image means that a psychopathic adult will soon be bent on destruction. We know there is no avoiding the hell that is coming. It can feel like doomsday and we have no control over where and when.

Until 2019 my family and I lived in Freeport, Grand Bahama, the northernmost island in the Bahamas.

Tara Pyfrom was born and raised in the Bahamas. (Posted by Tara Pyfrom)

We had already successfully weathered more hurricanes than we could name, but that year, Hurricane Dorian made landfall on the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama Before switch to Nova Scotia. Dorian has pushed a wall of water across the island so monumental that mere adjectives don’t begin to describe it. Ultimately, areas of Grand Bahama saw over seven feet of storm and sustained wind of 295 km/h with wind gusts over 350 km/h. For reference, two-story houses are about twenty feet tall, and an EF-5 tornado (the strongest rating for a tornado) has winds in excess of 200 mph.

With the water rising and there was no escape, my wife, my six-year-old daughter, and our five dogs swam inside our home as it quickly filled up like a fish tank.

The brown, cloudy water almost reaches the kitchen countertops.  Slippers, shoes and bags float on the surface.
Tara Pyfrom’s kitchen flooded when Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Bahamas. (Tara Pyfrom)

Eventually, we were forced to retreat to our crawl space in the attic. Drenched and full of adrenaline, I was terrified we would drown there, trapped in a watery pit above our house. By some miracle, the ocean didn’t follow us there. Instead, we were trapped by the storm in our attic for 24 hours. It seemed that we were waiting for death, and I repeated to myself: “Please let the roof hold.”

Our home in the Bahamas was built to withstand the worst a hurricane could throw at us. The roof held, saving our lives. We survived, but precious little of our lives remained after Dorian. During the storm, the inside of the house suffered a wash of ocean water. Very little was salvageable. Our belongings were either broken or covered in mud and gray ocean sludge. Engineering evaluations determined that the house was no longer structurally sound and could not be repaired.

An attic with insulation.
The attic crawl space where Pyfrom and his family sheltered from the storm for 24 hours. (Tara Pyfrom)

The island’s source of drinking water was also contaminated as ocean water seeped into the groundwater. Many of the island’s utilities needed to be rebuilt or replaced.

Afterwards, my family and I were evacuated to Florida.

We gave up life by the sea after Dorian, feeling we didn’t have what it took emotionally to rebuild our home, knowing another storm might come and sweep it all away again. Instead, we chose to immigrate to Canada permanently right after Dorian in 2019, escaping the monsters that seem to grow, in size and frequency, with each season.

A woman wades on a rocky beach.
Pyfrom enjoying the ocean in the Bay of Fundy. (Posted by Tara Pyfrom)

But we couldn’t leave the ocean behind completely, so we settled in Atlantic Canada. After surviving a Category 5 hurricane in a developing country, dealing with weaker Category 1 or 2 storms in Canada seems more manageable. My wife and I could not imagine living our lives in the central part of a country where the ocean was only a long flight away. We are ocean people by nature and by genetics. We grew up with memories and experiences that made us who we are thanks to the proximity of the ocean. It’s too important to who we are as people, both individually and as a family, to leave behind in our daily lives.

But those same feelings of fear rear their ugly head every year. As I watched the news on Ian, there were images of people floating inside their flooded homes during the storm. My gut reaction was, “You were lucky. At least the water didn’t reach the ceiling.” While we had no damage to our home during Fiona, we had 18 hours of power outage. This has brought to light considerable repressed trauma and anxiety.

A woman stands next to a generator and breakers in a garage.
During Fiona, Pyfrom became all too familiar with using a generator. (Posted by Tara Pyfrom)

The Bahamas rebuilds after these monstrous storms, though with each direct hit, rebuilding gets slower and more costly. Florida rebuilds itself. Nova Scotia and PEI rebuild. It’s not about whether another storm like Fiona, Ian, or Dorian will strike again; and when. Global warming and its effect on climate are real; hurricanes like Dorian are getting stronger because of it.

The United Nations values ​​it as much 40% of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers of the coast. Are we likely to be personally affected by a major hurricane while living in Atlantic Canada? Probably. My wife and I know we haven’t escaped them entirely, but we feel we are in a more stable position with Canada as our home now. With global warming, the Bahamas and other low-lying places will increasingly be at greater risk from superstorms than much larger mountainous countries like Canada. So, in a way, I feel safer.

Either way, we know all too well that, eventually, climate change will be upon everyone on Earth.

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