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

This first-person article is written by Tara Pyfrom, who lives in New Brunswick. For more information on CBC’s first-person stories, see the frequently asked questions.

Either you are lucky or you are unlucky. When you live by the ocean, by birth or by choice, you live with the consequences of annual hurricanes. As someone who falls into the first category, being born at the water’s edge doesn’t make the reality of our warming planet any easier to bear.

For six months each year, between June 1 and November 30, my family and I look at the ocean and weather forecasts. We know the names of meteorologists as if they were our educated friends around a table. Words like millibars, eyewall, and wind shear are just as much a part of our vocabulary as school, the weekend, and dinnertime. Memories of Andrew, Katrina, Sandy, Floyd, Frances, Jeanne, and Matthew send goosebumps down our necks and quicken our heartbeats in our chests.

We look forward with bated breath as these storms move from infancy to childhood to angry adolescence. We know that the appearance of an empty hole in the center of the infrared image means that an adult psychopath will soon be hell-bent on destruction. We know there is no way to avoid the coming hell. 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.

A smiling woman stands on a warm sandy beach.
Tara Pyfrom was born and raised in the Bahamas. (Submitted by Tara Pyfrom)

We had already successfully weathered more hurricanes than we could name, but that year, Hurricane Dorian hit the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama prior to move to nova scotia. Dorian pushed a wall of water over the island so monumental that simple adjectives do not begin to describe it. Ultimately, areas of Grand Bahama saw over seven meters of storm surge and sustained wind of 295 km/h with gusts greater than 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 no way to escape, my wife, our six-year-old daughter, and I, as well as our five dogs, swam into our home as it quickly filled like a fish tank.

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

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

Our house in the Bahamas was built to withstand the worst that any hurricane could throw at it. The roof held, saving our lives in the process. We survived, but very little of our lives remained after Dorian. During the storm, the interior of the house experienced a seawater washer. Very little was salvageable. Our belongings were either broken or covered in gray sludge from the ocean and sewage. Engineering evaluations determined that the house was no longer structurally sound and beyond repair.

An insulated attic.
The cramped attic space where Pyfrom and his family took shelter from the storm for 24 hours. (Tara Pyfrom)

The island’s drinking water source was also contaminated by ocean water entering the groundwater table. Many utilities on the island had to be rebuilt or replaced.

Later, my family and I evacuated to Florida.

We gave up life at the water’s edge after Dorian, feeling we didn’t have what it took emotionally to rebuild our home, knowing that another storm could come and wipe it all out again. Instead, we choose to permanently immigrate to Canada immediately after Dorian in 2019, fleeing the monsters that seem to grow, in size and frequency, with each season.

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

But we couldn’t bring ourselves to 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 middle part of a country where the ocean was only accessible by a long flight. We are ocean people by nature and genetics. We grew up having memories and experiences that made us who we are because of the proximity of the ocean. It is too important to who we are as individuals, both individually and as a family, to leave behind in our daily lives.

Now or never8:32Even though the ocean tried to kill us, I still want to live by the sea

Tara Pyfrom and her family survived 36 harrowing hours trapped in their home when Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas in 2019. After moving to New Brunswick, each hurricane that hits Atlantic Canada brings home the reality of climate change.

But those same feelings of fear rear their ugly head every year. As I watched Ian’s news coverage, there were images of people floating inside their flooded homes during the storm. My knee-jerk reaction was, “You were lucky. At least the water didn’t get to the ceiling.” While our home was not damaged during Fiona, we did lose power for 18 hours. This caused considerable repressed trauma and anxiety.

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

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

The United Nations estimates that as much as 40 percent 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 that we have not completely escaped them, but we feel that we are now in a more stable position with Canada as our home. With global warming, the Bahamas and other low-lying places will always be at higher risk of superstorms than much larger mountainous countries like Canada. So, in a sense, I feel more secure.

Either way, we know full well that climate change will eventually be within the reach of everyone on Earth.

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