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After 3rd major storm in 5 years, Magdalen Islanders say they’re on ‘front line’ of climate change

Isabelle Cormier spent the days after post-tropical storm Fiona picking through what could be salvaged of her family’s 40-year-old cottage.

Among the soggy treasures strewn on the ground: a troll doll, so old its hair was gone, a large cooking pot, and a single oar — a fitting souvenir for a family that loves boating.

The cottage, hand-built by the family using driftwood, collapsed like a house of cards during the storm. 

All that remains is the roof, a window covered in children’s stickers and a limp electric wire, waving in the wind.

“A good friend of mine called me early in the morning, Saturday morning, and said ‘I’m so sorry,'” said Cormier.

But she had known the day was coming when the building would collapse. It was long protected by a sand dune so high that people inside the could only see the water from the top floor. 

Over the last three years, storms — including 2019’s Dorian — winnowed that sand dune down to nothing. By the time Fiona hit, the cottage was fully exposed to the elements.

“My grieving, I did it when Dorian hit. I knew that was going to be it,” she said. “It’s emotional now … because it’s a place for us, for our family, and it’s got a great deal of soul.”

A wet troll doll with no hair sit on a table in the rain.
On Sunday, members of Isabelle Cormier’s family cleaned up the wreckage of her cottage, including picking up personal items (such as this troll doll) from the ground. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

Shoreline loss now half-metre a year

Fiona is the third major storm to hit the Magdalen Islands in five years, according to Serge Bourgeois, the director of urban planning for the municipality, which has a population of about 12,000. (Another 465 people live in Grosse Îsle, a mostly English-speaking island which is a separate municipality.) 

Quebec’s Transport Ministry is still doing repairs after Hurricane Dorian, Bourgeois said.

Storms are speeding up erosion but even without major weather events, research from the Université du Québec à Rimouski (UQAR) shows that the Magdalen Islands are losing land mass faster than they did before.

One study shows that between 1963 and 2008, the islands’ shorelines eroded an average of 24 centimetres per year. More recent UQAR studies have found that loss has nearly doubled since 2005, to 46 centimetres — or nearly half a metre — per year. 

The sand and dunes, described by Cormier as the islands’ “flesh and blood,” are vanishing at an alarming rate, she said. 

“Us islanders are on the front line of the climate change,” said Cormier. “The real impact, the real grieving, it’s the erosion.”

Images show the size of the sand dune in front of Isabelle Cormier's chalet before and after it was eroded. The photo on the left is from 2019 and the photo on the right is from 2014.
The image on the right shows the size of the sand dune in front of Isabelle Cormier’s chalet in 2014. The photo on the left is from 2019, after Dorian. (Submitted by Isabelle Cormier)

Fight to save the Maggies

Since 2018, the three levels of government have spent more than $50 million to fight shoreline erosion on the Magdalen Islands.

Visiting the islands in the storm’s aftermath on Monday, Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault promised an additional $100 million and the creation of an office to co-ordinate efforts to stall erosion on all affected shorelines, including on the Gaspé Peninsula and along the Lower North Shore.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Bourgeois. “The 100 million dollars is one thing, but the office is an excellent idea.”

A woman with blond hair stands in front of half-empty shelves in her herb store in the Magdalen Islands
Nouane Giguère, owner of L’Anse aux Herbes in La Grave, said her store experienced about a foot of flooding during post-tropical storm Fiona. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

Recent efforts to prevent erosion have already made some difference, locals say.

In La Grave, on the southern side of the archipelago, the province and the municipality shared the $7.4 million cost of fortifying the pebble beach ahead of more storms.

Small seaside stores flooded. However, the owner of one of them, called Anse aux Herbes, said things could have been much worse.

“What we are really happy about is they put down the rocks to break the waves, and that was helpful,” said Nouane Giguère, who spent Sunday cleaning and assessing damage after her store took on about a foot of water. 

“Without it, it would be really, really more dramatic.”

But with the latest evidence of just how much damage one ferocious storm can wreak, many islanders hope political leaders can now see the urgency of the situation and just what it will take to save their foothold in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

Water laps at large rocky cliffs in the Magdalen Islands on the sunny day
Post-tropical storm Fiona ended around 10 p.m. Saturday on the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with winds surpassing 150 km/h times. (Kate McKenna/CBC )

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