Surging seas threaten crucial road in St. Mary’s

By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
September 30 2020

PORT HILFORD – For years, each morning, when they peered through their front window to cherish what was left of the beach where they first met in 1969, Rob and Kim McGrail wondered how long before they saw it finally vanish into the sea forever. Today, in the aftermath of Hurricane Teddy, the question is more urgent than ever.

“The waves just take the rock and carry it away,” Rob says. “This has been going on for years, but it’s been getting worse.”

Last week’s tempest didn’t help. The mouth of the brook that drains Indian Harbour Lake near Port Hilford, into the outer bay – a few hundred meters from the McGrail’s front door – is jammed with silt, pushing the lake to the highest levels people in the area can remember. Meandering alongside the embankments and down almost as far as the beach’s freshly storm-etched edge runs provincial Route 211.

That highway is the main road which connects coastal communities – places like Port Bickerton, Holland Harbour, Wine Harbour, and Port Hilford itself – to the rest of the province. If it’s damaged, or worse, many would be effectively cut off from emergency services, such as hospitals and fire brigades. The only alternative, for others, is the more circuitous route along 316 through Country Harbour.

On Friday, the situation prompted St. Mary’s Director of Emergency Measures Brian Hallett to alert Chief Administrative Officer Marvin MacDonald.

“I would hope [DoT] would [look at it], because one section of highway that runs along there is very low to the lake at the best of times. Also, the road that goes across from the 211 to Wine Harbour at the lower end of the lake is very low. Before all that becomes an issue, [DoT will] probably have a look and see what can be done about it.”

When contacted on Monday, MacDonald said that he would, indeed, contact the department, but added that the 211 is not the real problem; the trouble, he noted, is one of the smaller roads that branches off from it. At any rate, he confirmed, “I will be looking into it.”

But without physical damage to the road, it’s unclear what the department can actually do. People around here know the real problem lies about 500 metres down from the harbour’s head at the end of Brushett Road, where an old federal government wharf, which once protected the coast from the worst of nature’s wrath, has all but disappeared.

“You used to be able to go there and hang out after supper and see people fishing for mackerel off the wharf,” says McGrail, a Halifax native who started coming here in the summer of Woodstock, the summer of the first Apollo moon landing, when he was 21 and met his future wife, who was 17. “My wife’s family had been here since 1948.”

Eventually, they bought their own plot and settled down. “At that time, we were able to enjoy the harbour a lot more than we can now,” he says. “Starting in the early 1990s, the government gave up on maintaining road and the wharf, itself. It was sacrificed essentially. We used to have five fishermen fish out of here. We lost our last one, who moved away, two years ago, basically because (Port Hilford) was not protected. And because there was no wharf…the waves were pulling the land into the harbour (making it shallow).”

Beginning in the early 2000s, the erosion seemed to accelerate. It got so bad, McGrail even asked his member of parliament to get involved directly. “In 2012-13, Peter Mackay and his wife came down here to look at the situation,” he says. “We made a plea to him to shore up the wharf and breakwater. There was something afoot at the time, but it evaporated.”

David MacDonald, who also lives along that stretch of coast – and who teaches at St. Mary’s Education Centre/Academy – knows that frustration. When he learned that Hurricane Teddy was barreling down on this part of the province, he deliberately erected a Facebook page, “Protect NS Highway 211 and Port Hilford Beach,” to draw attention to the longstanding problem. “Please contact Lloyd Hines to express your concerns,” he posted, replete with the MLA’s phone number and email address. More than 100 people now follow the group.

The fact that Teddy wasn’t much of a tempest for most of St. Mary’s only reinforces MacDonald’s point: “I don’t see anything really damaging happening to that road at the moment. But if Teddy had been really bad, well, that’s why we’re making the case now. I’m only 36 but, in my lifetime, I’ve seen the breakwater [wharf] gone, the road to the breakwater gone. It is creeping towards that [211] road. If you look, there’s not much space left between the beach and the guardrail. So, all those people would be cut off. And the only way they could get around is by the other route.”

As for the clogged brook that drains Indian Harbour Lake, MacDonald says, “That never happened until the breakwater was completely destroyed. Now, it’s almost like the water whips around that side of the bay and pushes everything to the left. When the breakwater was there, the water wasn’t able to do that.

“But to me, the bigger danger than the lake is the possible trouble on the other side of it as you go down 211. That’s where storm surges could eat out [the road] from underneath and make the highway eventually collapse.”

The immediate solution, both MacDonald and McGrail say, is to shore up the infrastructure where the wharf once stood. But even this may only be a temporary fix. Current global climate models tell us sea levels are rising around the world. Coastal communities like Port Hilford are bound to face identical or similar problems in the future, and with increasing frequency.

“Because we live here and we see what happens every storm, we see the changes,” MacDonald says. “We know what kind of train is coming, and we just want to make sure that we’re protected now, before that happens.”

Attempts to reach Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure and local MLA Lloyd Hines for comment were not successful by press time.