By Eric Martyn and John Morris
STEPHENVILLE, Newfoundland (Reuters) - Powerful storm Fiona ripped into eastern Canada on Saturday with hurricane-force winds, forcing evacuations, knocking down trees and powerlines, and reducing many homes on the coast to "just a pile of rubble in the ocean."
The U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said the center of the storm, downgraded to Post-Tropical Cyclone Fiona, was now in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and losing some steam. The NHC canceled hurricane and tropical storm warnings for the region.
Port aux Basques, on the southwest tip of Newfoundland with a population of 4,067, bore the brunt of the storm's rage.
The mayor was forced to declare a state of emergency and evacuated parts of the town that suffered flooding and road washouts.
Several homes and an apartment building were dragged out to sea, Rene Roy, editor-in-chief of Wreckhouse Weekly in Port aux Basques, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
"This is hands down the most terrifying thing I've ever seen in my life," Roy said, describing many homes as "just a pile of rubble in the ocean right now."
"There is an apartment building that's literally gone. There are entire streets that are gone," he added. Police are investigating whether a woman had been swept to sea, CBC reported.
"We've gone through a very difficult morning," Button said in a Facebook video, adding that the evacuations had been completed. "We'll get through this. I promise you we will get through it."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met on Saturday morning with members of a government emergency response team, and later told reporters that the armed forces would be deployed to help with the clean up.
"We're seeing reports of significant damage in the region, and recovery is going to be a big effort," Trudeau said. "We will be there to support every step of the way."
Trudeau had delayed his planned Saturday departure for Japan to attend the funeral of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but said he now would no longer make the trip. Instead he said he would visit the storm-damaged region as soon as possible.
Federal assistance has already been approved for Nova Scotia, Trudeau said, and more requests are expected.
Fiona, which nearly a week ago battered Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean, killed at least eight and knocked out power for virtually all of Puerto Rico's 3.3 million people during a sweltering heat wave.
Fiona made landfall between Canso and Guysborough, Nova Scotia, where the Canadian Hurricane Centre said it recorded what may have been the lowest barometric pressure of any storm to hit land in the country's history.
Ian Hubbard, meteorologist for the Canadian Hurricane Centre, told Reuters it appears Fiona lived up to expectations that it would be a "historical" storm.
"It did look like it had the potential to break the all-time record in Canada, and it looks like it did," he said. "We're still not out of this yet."
Storms are not uncommon in the region and typically cross over rapidly, but Fiona is expected to impact a very large area.
While scientists have not yet determined whether climate change influenced Fiona's strength or behavior, there is strong evidence that these devastating storms are getting worse.
HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS WITHOUT POWER
Some 69% of customers, or 360,720 were without power in Nova Scotia, and 95%, or more than 82,000, had lost power on Prince Edward Island, utility companies said. Police across the region reported multiple road closures. The region was also experiencing spotty mobile phone service.
Mobile and Wifi provider Rogers Communications Inc said it was aware of outages caused by Fiona, and that crews would work to restore service "as quickly as possible."
PEI produces more than a fifth of Canada's potatoes and the island's potato farms, which are in harvest season, were likely to be impacted by the storm, Hubbard said.
"This morning we all woke up to some very scary scenes, roads washed down, uprooted trees, mail boxes where they are not supposed to be," Darlene Compton, deputy premier of PEI, told reporters, saying it had been a "nerve wracking" night.
In Halifax, 11 boats sank at the Shearwater Yacht Club and four were grounded, said Elaine Keene, who has a boat at the club that escaped damage.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault said no injuries or fatalities had been reported so far, and officials from both PEI and Nova Scotia said the same.
The storm weakened somewhat as it traveled north. By 5 pm in Halifax (2100 GMT), it was over the Gulf of St. Lawrence about 80 miles (130 km) northwest of Port aux Basques, carrying maximum sustained winds of 70 miles per hour (110 kph), the NHC said.
(Reporting Eric Martyn in Halifax and John Morris in Stephenville; Additional reporting by Ivelisse Rivera in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Ismail Shakil and Steve Scherer in Ottawa, and Denny Thomas in Toronto; Writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Diane Craft and Daniel Wallis)