People lost a lot in post-tropical storm Fiona, but Norm Hinks lost the most

Norm Hinks, 73, lost his partner, home and many possessions to Fiona. Six months later, he's still living in temporary accommodations and waiting on the government's promised financial compensation.

After storm hit last fall, Port aux Basques senior found himself without his partner

A man, in a camouflage t-shirt, sits upright in a recliner chair.
Norm Hinks, 73, lost his partner, his home and most of his possessions when post-tropical storm Fiona ripped through Port aux Basques, N.L., six months ago, on Sept. 24. He is living in temporary accommodations for seniors and still waiting for financial compensation from the province. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

When Norm Hinks was 16, he gave his girlfriend, Thelma Leamon, a present: a pocket knife and a lucky rabbit's paw.

They split up shortly after — like most high school sweethearts do.

Thirty-five years later, Hinks and Leamon rekindled their love. When they moved in together in Port aux Basques, N.L., Thelma still had the pocket knife and rabbit's paw.

In the 23 years that followed, the couple made up for lost time and were seldom apart.

Now, in his temporary accommodations at a one-bedroom cottage for seniors, Hinks peels carrots and turnips destined for the rabbit stew bubbling away on the stove.

"We don't get sick or colds because we eat fairly healthy," Hinks said, before pausing and adding, "I say 'we,' but it's only me now."

A man holds a knife and is cutting carrots. There's a pile of carrot and turnip peels on the table wooden cutting board.
Hinks chops carrots and turnips for a stew. He enjoys cooking and is getting used to cooking for one since Fiona took his home and his partner, Thelma Leamon. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

A green camouflage couch sits in the living room, and a muted TV plays a reality show about hunting.

As if there were any doubt, Hinks declares he's a "hunting fanatic," and adds that he had the best hunting partner in Leamon.

She didn't like to take selfies. But on their last moose hunting trip, Leamon was unusually enthusiastic to take one while sitting on their all-terrain vehicle.

"So I took the picture, and she said, 'Let me look at it,'" Hinks said. "And she said, 'Oh, we gotta smile. Take another.'"

A man and a woman smile at the camera. They're wearing helmets and the woman is wearing an orange safety vest and an orange hat.
Hinks, right, and Leamon are shown in a selfie that hangs on the wall of his one-bedroom seniors' residence The photo was taken three days before Leamon lost her life in the storm. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

That photo — taken on a Wednesday — is the only thing hanging on Hinks's walls.

Leamon, 73, died three days later — on Sept. 24, 2022 — when post-tropical storm Fiona violently ripped through Newfoundland's southwest coast, causing significant damage and flooding, destroying homes and washing out roads. Port aux Basques declared a state of emergency.

The body of Leamon, a grandmother, was found on the Sunday. She was the only person in Newfoundland and Labrador who lost their life in the storm.

'Never be another one like her'

Hinks, 73, takes a deep sigh and shakes his head a little when he thinks back to that day.

"I miss her so much," he said. "There will never be another one like her."

On the day the storm hit, the couple prepared to leave the house when the water from Fiona started to rise and cover parts of their patio.

"I said, 'Come on.' I said, 'We gotta get out of here,'" Hinks said.

The side of a house is collapsed after a storm in a neighbourhood.
One side of a house in Port aux Basques collapsed while the other side remains standing after Fiona pummelled the town in September. Sea levels rose by over a metre, seemingly in an instant, from heavy winds and a storm surge. (Yan Theoret/CBC)

Leamon then told him to move his boat. "I'll be fine," she said.

Hinks left the house to move his boat, just as a violent wave crashed over the property, carrying sheds and parts of the house away. Leamon was still inside, and he raced back.

"Hollering out her name and nothing, and we could stand up in the porch and look down in the basement through the living room, and all [that] was there was gravel and the cement wall."

Much of what followed was a blur. Leamon's body was found the next day.

Hinks — like everyone in Port aux Basques — has seen raging seas and roaring winds before. But no one was prepared for the devastation Fiona brought.

"If it came throughout the night, you wouldn't be talking to me, and a good many more," he said.

LISTEN | 6 months after Fiona, the people of Port aux Basques are still recovering: 

Waiting for promised compensation

When journalists arrived in Port aux Basques in the days after Fiona, many asked Hinks and his family to do interviews, but he declined.

Six months later, he's not entirely sure why he agreed to talk, he says, but he felt it was time. Perhaps it's because he's still waiting on promised financial compensation from the province and isn't satisfied with how long it's taking.

Their home was in Leamon's name and she didn't have a will, so getting compensation has been a lengthy and complicated process. 

Extensive damage to homes after a storm.
This aerial drone photo shows extensive damage to homes in Port aux Basques on Sept. 26, two days after the storm struck the community. (Yan Theoret/CBC)

Hinks says he's disappointed in the government officials, including Premier Andrew Furey, who came after the storm and reassured him he'd receive financial compensation. 

"They patted me on the arm, said, 'You're going to be looked after, don't worry about it, you're in good hands, I promise you,'" he said.

Hinks says he believed them then, but now he's starting to lose hope.

"And I haven't heard a word from [any] one of them since," he said. "I think about all those promises, and nothing done."

$14 million in government payments

Hinks's home is one of 102 homes in the town considered a total loss.

"Significant progress has been made in terms of adjuster and contractor site visits," the province's Department of Justice and Public Safety said in a statement.

It said almost $14 million has been paid to 34 property owners.

The government said most of the homes considered a total loss have been visited by an adjuster and contractor. "Assessments have also been completed on many homes that require repairs only," says the statement.

"Government has also been providing funding for temporary accommodations to anyone displaced as a result of Hurricane Fiona."

Cash, belongings washed away in storm

Hinks filled out an eight-page list of belongings he lost in Fiona, and every day he recalls more things, like a rotary tool.

The grandfather had many hobbies — writing, photography, woodworking and gunsmithing, to name a few.

There were expensive things on the list, including boats, guns, tools and a continuous positive airway pressure machine Hinks uses to help him sleep, as well as a desktop computer with a file that held the beginnings of a book he was writing.

Two men sit in chairs, one looks at the other with a smile. Both have walking canes.
Hinks, left, chats with his friend and cousin, Huey Osmond, who recently lost his wife to cancer. The two keep each other company. (Caroline Hillier/CBC )

"Thelma was going to go in and correct the punctuation and do it all for me, but we never got down to that."

She had even picked the name of the book: Adventures With Norm. He has plans to write that book, for her. 

Hinks also lost his life savings: $35,000 in cash. They had recently taken it out of the bank and were on waiting lists at both local banks to get a safety deposit box.

Some of the cash washed onto the shore, and after word got out that it belonged to Hinks, many of the residents picked it up and brought it to him. About $3,000 was recovered.

Then there are the things that are irreplaceable: 10-year-old handwritten diaries, hunting log books, photos and the pocket knife and rabbit's paw.

While nothing will be able to console Hinks over the loss of Leamon, he says getting back a sliver of his old life and surroundings would do him a world of good.

Homes located beside the ocean are heavily damaged by a storm.
Homes left exposed and tattered from Fiona sit on the rocky shoreline in Port aux Basques. The provincial government says almost $14 million has been paid to 34 property owners. In all, 102 homes in the town are considered a total loss. (Troy Turner/CBC)

What he'd like the most, even more than his home, is his shed: a messy spot with a wood stove and a lifetime of tools.

For a man who spent most of his time outdoors, being cooped up in an apartment near the main drag isn't doing much for Hinks's mental and physical health: "I'm on two kinds of pills for PTSD. I take sleeping pills," he said.

Hinks, who spends a lot of time in a recliner by the window, says getting financial compensation would allow him to rebuild: literally and figuratively.

"I don't want to give up, but it's like they want me to."

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Caroline Hillier is an award winning audio doc maker and journalist based in St. John's. She's currently hosting and producing Atlantic Voice, a weekly documentary show that features compelling stories from Atlantic Canada.