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

This First Person article was written by Tara Pyfrom, who lives in New Brunswick. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see Instructions.

Either you are lucky or you are unlucky. When you live on the ocean’s edge, by birth or by choice, you live with the consequences of the annual hurricanes. As someone who falls into the former category, being born at the water’s edge does nothing to make the reality of our warming planet easier.

For six months every year, between June 1 and November 30, my family and I monitor the ocean and the weather forecast. We know the names of meteorologists as if they were our intellectual friends around the dinner table. Words like millibar, bridge of the eye, and wind shear are as much a part of our vocabulary as school, weekend, and dinner time. Memories of Andrew, Katrina, Sandy, Floyd, Francis, Jane, and Matthew leave goosebumps on our necks and heart racing in our chests.

We wait with bated breath as these stormtroopers grow from infancy to infancy to grumpy teens. We know that an empty hole in the center of an infrared image means that a psychopathic adult will soon become bent on destruction. We know there is no way to avoid the coming hell. It can look 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.

Smiling woman standing on a warm sandy beach.
Tara Pyfrom was born and raised in the Bahamas. (Submitted by Tara Bifrom)

We’ve already weathered more hurricanes than we can name, but that year, Hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama Before Moving to Nova Scotia. Dorian pushed a wall of water over the island so massive that mere adjectives don’t begin to describe it. Ultimately, areas of Grand Bahama experienced more than seven meters of storm surge and Winds continued at a speed of 295 km/h with gusts of more than 350 km/h. For reference, two-story homes are about six meters high, and an EF-5 tornado (the strongest tornado rating) has winds over 320 km/h.

With the water rising and no way to escape, my wife, six year old daughter, as well as our five dogs and I swam inside our house as it quickly filled like an aquarium.

The dark brown water almost reaches the kitchen counters.  Slippers, shoes and bags float to the surface.
Tara Bifrom’s kitchen was flooded when Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Bahamas. (Tara Bifrom)

In the end, we had to retreat to the attic crawl space. I was soaked and running on adrenaline, terrified we were going to drown there, trapped in a watery grave above our house. By some miracle, the ocean did not follow us there. Instead, we were kept imprisoned by the storm in the attic for 24 hours. I felt like we were waiting for death, and I said to myself, “Please let the roof hold.”

Our home in the Bahamas is built to withstand the worst any hurricane can throw at it. The roof held, saving our lives in the process. We survived, but there is little left of our lives after Dorian. During the storm, the interior of the house saw a wash of ocean water. Very little was salvageable. Our luggage was smashed or covered in gray ocean mud and sewage. Engineering assessments determined that the house was no longer structurally sound and beyond repair.

Attic with insulation.
The attic crawl space is where Pyfrom and her family take shelter from the storm for 24 hours. (Tara Bifrom)

The island’s drinking water source has also been polluted by ocean water that has penetrated the water table. Many of the facilities on the island had to be rebuilt or replaced.

In the aftermath, my family and I left for Florida.

We gave up life on the water’s edge after Dorian, feeling like we didn’t have what it took emotionally to rebuild our home, knowing that another storm might come and hit it again. Instead, we chose to immigrate permanently to Canada immediately after Dorian in 2019, to escape the monsters that seem to grow, in size and frequency, with each season.

Woman surfing on a rocky beach.
Pyfrom enjoys the ocean in the Bay of Fundy. (Submitted by Tara Bifrom)

But we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave the ocean entirely behind us, 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 any country where the ocean could only be reached by a long journey. We are people of the oceans by nature and genetics. We grew up with memories and experiences that made us who we are because of being close to the ocean. It is very important for us as people, both individually and as a family, to leave it 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 hours trapped in their home when Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas in 2019. After they moved to New Brunswick, every hurricane that hits Atlantic Canada brings home the reality of climate change.

But the same feelings of fear rear their ugly head every year. As I was watching Ian’s news coverage, there were pictures of people floating inside their flooded homes during the storm. My unusual reaction was, “You’re lucky. At least the water didn’t reach your roof.” While we had no damage to our house during Fiona’s stay, we lost electricity for 18 hours. This raised anxiety and pent-up trauma enormously.

A woman stands next to a generator and breakers in a garage.
During Fiona’s time, Pyfrom became very familiar with the generator. (Submitted by Tara Bifrom)

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

The United Nations appreciates that 40 percent of the world’s population lives within 100 km of the coast. Is it likely that we will be personally affected by a major hurricane during our stay in Atlantic Canada? potential. My wife and I know we haven’t completely escaped them, 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 always be at greater risk of superstorms than larger, mountainous countries like Canada. So, in a sense, I feel safer.

Either way, we know very well that eventually, climate change will be on the cusp of every single person on Earth.

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