After shrugging off warnings prior to Juan’s devastation a decade ago, Islanders no longer take storm warnings lightly
John Dennis says he would never have spent the night on his boat if he had known the perils that awaited him 10 years ago.
He knew a storm was coming, but he didn’t think it would be very bad. He decided to stay aboard his vessel, the Chapter II, in the Charlottetown Yacht Club marina to keep it from hitting other boats. He didn’t have insurance.
Sometime after 1:30 a.m. the winds picked up. Then they changed direction.
Hurricane Juan reached P.E.I. at 3:17 a.m. Winds hit 139km/h with a peak wind at 146 km/h.
“All of a sudden I looked up, and the gangway that I could get off the wharf with was gone and my boat started breaking lines,” Dennis said, recalling the night of Sept. 28 and the early morning hours of Sept. 29, 2003.
He was soon adrift after a rope got caught in his propeller. His boat was then thrown against the concrete wharf of the Canadian Coast Guard and held there for several hours as 10-foot-high waves crashed around him, tossing other boats like kindling.
“I was all adrenaline. I was just trying to save my boat. I didn’t think too much for my own safety, I guess.”
Looking back on the Category 1 hurricane that hit Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia with deadly force a decade ago this weekend, Dennis admits he was not prepared for the brutality of the storm.
No one, it seems, was prepared for the wrath of hurricane Juan.
Warnings were issued, but Islanders mainly shrugged.
A few cautious people tied down lawn furniture. But just about everyone seemed to believe Juan would be no more than a blustery rainstorm.
By the time it hit the Island, it had technically downgraded to a tropical storm. But the roaring winds left a path of destruction unlike any storm in the province’s history.
Charlottetown was hardest hit. Giant 100-year-old trees were ripped from the ground all over the capital. They toppled on homes, cars and power lines, their twisted branches strewn everywhere. Most of the city was left without power.
At the Charlottetown Yacht Club, where Dennis spent his harrowing night, boats were smashed and crushed into a floating graveyard of debris. In total seven boats sank and dozens of others were badly damaged after being tossed around in the waves and tidal surge all night.
The raging winds also found the Charlottetown Driving Park, ripping the roof from the former grandstand and causing extensive damage to the Charlottetown Trade Centre next door.
Further inland, the giant movie screen at the historic Brackley Drive-In Theatre was reduced to a twisted pile of kindling.
Fortunately, no one in P.E.I. was injured or killed, but the storm left a path of destruction worth millions in damages.
The provincial claim for Disaster Financial Assistance from the federal government was $2.8 million. The feds provided P.E.I. with $1.8 million toward this total.
The Insurance Board of Canada estimates the total cost of insured damages for hurricane Juan in P.E.I. when adjusted for inflation for 2012 is $7.9 million.
But the figures say nothing of the terror many Islanders endured as Juan roared through the province.
Judy Beaton was asleep in her mobile home in Alexandra with her fiancé and two-year-old daughter Shelby when she was awoken by the sound of the raging wind.
“You don’t run when your boat’s in trouble.” John Dennis in 2003
“The sound was like nothing I can describe, just howling,” she said.
“When you looked outside, you just wouldn’t believe it. It was just debris blowing everywhere.”
Suddenly, the wind ripped out the tie-downs for their trailer and began lifting one side of their home off the ground.
That’s when the family realized they had to escape.
As they opened their door to leave, it was torn almost off its hinges.
“There was steel lifted off the outside,” Beaton said.
“There were pieces of the roof peeled off just like a tin can. There was insulation everywhere, metal everywhere.”
Her fiancé, now husband, Bob put a blanket over their daughter’s head to shield her from the horrifying sight.
Although she was only a toddler when it happened, the now 13-year-old Shelby still remembers the harrowing hurricane and how her family had to evacuate from their home.
Beaton says she no longer takes weather warnings lightly.
“We don’t take anything for granted anymore. I think a lot of Islanders don’t either.”
The provincial government and the city of Charlottetown have indeed taken emergency and storm preparedness to a new level since the devastation of hurricane Juan.
Islanders can sign up to receive telephone or mobile phone alerts from the provincial Office of Public Safety.
Officials in the joint emergency operations centre – a secure command centre in Charlottetown – are constantly monitoring storm tracks and weather radars, always on the watch for the next big storm. Tactical teams are trained and ready to deploy for all manners of emergencies.
Tanya Mullally, the provincial emergency management coordinator, says she hopes Islanders will never again dismiss warnings as they did when Juan was approaching 10 years ago.
Because when it comes to another hurricane hitting P.E.I., it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when.
“We just want people to listen and to heed the warnings,” Mullally said.
“Knowing that each one we get nowadays seems to be a little stronger… we expect another one. It’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of knowing when.”
That’s why public safety officials have also been actively encouraging the public to get prepared for emergencies by putting together a 72-hour emergency preparedness kit.
That’s the amount of time it could take emergency officials to reach anyone in distress after a disaster or weather event.
“Individuals need to be prepared to take care of themselves.” Mullally said.
“We always encourage individuals to look at what are the risks?”
She believes many Islanders are more prepared today and do heed warnings more closely after their experience with hurricane Juan.
After his stormy night afloat in the Charlottetown marina 10 years ago, Dennis takes no chances.
When warnings went out two weeks ago about tropical storm Gabrielle heading toward P.E.I., Dennis took precautions.
“Remembering what happened during Juan, I took it out of the marina and anchored it in the bay in front of my house. That’s the thing to do, really. Get out of the marina.”