POLITICS

Hurricane Juan's destructive legacy lingers in Halifax a decade later

09/27/2013 04:00 EDT | Updated 11/26/2013 05:12 EST
HALIFAX - On Sept. 28, 2003, Halifax's beloved Point Pleasant Park was an oceanside haven of walking trails protected by a lush canopy of leaves.

The next morning, 70,000 of its trees were laid out like matchsticks, their roots wrenched from the earth by hurricane Juan — a brawny Category 2 storm that ripped through the Halifax area, across central Nova Scotia and through Prince Edward Island, causing an estimated $100 million in damage.

While much progress has been made in the decade since the storm, those involved in the restoration process say it will take more than a lifetime to repair the damage Mother Nature dealt in a few short hours.

Point Pleasant Park is still "not the park it was before," says John Simmons, a longtime urban forester with the Halifax Regional Municipality.

"Nothing will cure that but 100 years," he says. "The trees that blew down in that park, when we counted the rings, the majority of them were 70 to 100 years old."

Juan, one of the fiercest hurricanes to hit Canada, made landfall west of Halifax between Shad Bay and Prospect shortly after midnight on Sept. 29, 2003. It packed winds of more than 140 kilometres an hour and weakened as it roared toward P.E.I., where it flattened trees and power lines.

The mighty storm knocked out power to more than 100,000 people in Nova Scotia for days. Tree branches, power lines, shingles and siding from houses were strewn across city streets. Crushed cars sat pinned beneath huge tree trunks that had been growing for decades. On the city's touristy waterfront, curious shutterbugs snapped photos where huge chunks of boardwalk had been chewed up and spat out by the angry sea. The military was called upon to assist in the painstaking cleanup.

The hurricane was blamed for eight deaths, both direct and indirect. The World Meteorological Organization retired the name "Juan" from its rotating list of hurricane monikers in 2004 because of the widespread and devastating impact of the storm.

In Halifax, nowhere was Juan's fury more evident than in Point Pleasant Park, a 75-hectare waterfront park on the southern tip of the city cherished by cyclists, runners, young families and dog owners.

"For some people, the first little bit of nature they were exposed to when they were young was a walk in that park, and for some people the first place they walked their children was in that park, and sometimes the first time they held hands with someone they married was in that park," says Simmons.

"And then we go in and see everything just laid to the ground like an atomic bomb went off, it was very emotional."

Elsewhere, Nova Scotia's provincial parks also took a beating, especially those located along the coast.

Porters Lake Provincial Park, 33 kilometres east of Halifax, remained closed to campers until July 2005 after Juan toppled trees and caused flood damage.

"Imagine you're in a campground that has a majority of softwood cover and the next day you go and basically half the trees are down," recalls Harold Carroll, director of parks and recreation with the provincial Department of Natural Resources.

"There were trees criss-crossed all over the place. It didn't look pretty."

The federal and provincial governments spent $3.7 million to fix up 18 damaged parks. Carroll says Porters Lake isn't the same as it once was, but it now offers visitors a view of the lake. Newcomers to the park would likely never know it had been struck by a hurricane.

"In many parks, like McNabs Island, there's still lots of evidence of damage from hurricane Juan, but it's starting to disappear as new growth comes in," says Carroll. "It's getting harder to see but it's still visible, and that's fine. That's part of the natural process of renewal."

He says Juan highlighted weaknesses in the province's coastal parks, and changed the way the Natural Resources Department develops new sites and decides where to build infrastructure.

Two years after the storm, Halifax selected two designs to revitalize Point Pleasant Park as part of an international design competition. The plan included improved lighting, seating and emergency phones, as well as new landscaping, better paving and improved trail signs. Allowing the forest to regenerate naturally was also key.

Simmons says workers planted 100,000 seedlings over three years in an attempt to diversify the forest stand and create a more natural balance of conifer and broadleaf trees that can better withstand a powerful storm. Foresters also selectively cut some non-native trees, and regeneration is well underway.

"This is what we foresaw as being a good end product, and that is a very vibrant and healthy understorey and young trees coming up," says Simmons.

The ongoing recovery serves as a lingering reminder of Juan's ferocity, and that's just fine with the city's emergency management co-ordinator, Barry Manuel.

He says storm warnings have been taken more seriously since the hurricane hit. Before Juan, hardy Maritimers often shrugged warnings off, assuming the storm would blow out to sea before causing too much trouble.

"If there's anything I want to take from Juan, it's hopefully when we're giving that message now, it's being heard and being more appreciated."

Carroll agrees.

"It's 10 years ago, but its legacy lives on," he says. "I think you find a greater proportion of the people now pay attention because when Juan hit, I'd venture to say most people didn't."