East Coast warning: Hurricane Fiona could cause damage, power outages and flooding

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HALIFAX — Residents of Atlantic Canada and the eastern edge of Quebec are being warned to brace for hurricane-force winds and intense rainfall as hurricane Fiona remains on track to slam into the East Coast late Friday.

Environment Canada says the storm could produce damaging gusts, coastal storm surges and pounding surf as it merges with a low-pressure trough and transforms into a powerful post-tropical storm on Saturday.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the storm's predicted track had it crossing eastern Nova Scotia and Cape Breton on Saturday afternoon, churning out sustained winds of 135 kilometres per hour — as strong as a Category 1 hurricane.

"It's a very significant storm and has the potential to have severe impacts in terms of wind and rain and storm surge," said Ian Hubbard, a meteorologist at the Canadian Hurricane Centre in Dartmouth, N.S.

Fiona, the first major hurricane of the season, could cause prolonged power outages and structural damage, Environment Canada said in a tropical cyclone statement. Buildings under construction will be particularly vulnerable, the statement said.

Jason Mew, a director with Nova Scotia's Emergency Management Office, encouraged residents to fill-up on fuel, trim any weak tree limbs and check on their neighbours.

"I cannot stress this enough: be aware and prepared," he told an online briefing Wednesday. "I think that everyone should take this storm seriously."

Meanwhile, heavy rain is in the forecast for Thursday night and flooding is likely in some areas as a low-pressure system moves over the region and merges with Fiona.

The wind will pick up on Friday night and peak on Saturday.

The heaviest rainfall is expected to the north and west of Fiona's track, which is forecast to cross eastern Nova Scotia, southwestern Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. These areas can expect to be drenched with 100 to 200 millimetres of rain by Saturday.

"Those numbers could change," said Hubbard, who stressed that the path of the centre of the storm is not that important, given the fact that the storm is so large.

"Just because you're not along the centre of the track, does not mean you will not be affected by the rain, wind and storm surges — or a combination of the three," he said. The storm is expected to reach Quebec's North Shore and southeastern Labrador early Sunday.

"Severe winds and rainfall will have major impacts for eastern Prince Edward Island, eastern Nova Scotia, western Newfoundland, eastern Quebec and southeastern Labrador," Environment Canada said in statement issued Wednesday afternoon.

"There will also be large waves, especially for the Atlantic coasts of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and eastern portions of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Finally, there is a high likelihood of storm surge for parts of Nova Scotia, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Newfoundland."

Large waves are expected to reach the eastern shore of Nova Scotia on Friday night and build to more than 10 metres. These waves will likely reach southern Newfoundland by Saturday morning. Dangerous rip currents are likely, and storm surge will be a threat for parts of Nova Scotia, P.E.I., Quebec's Iles-de-la-Madeleine and southwest Newfoundland.

As the swirling storm nears Nova Scotia on Friday, it is expected to transition from a hurricane to a post-tropical storm, but that doesn't mean Fiona will lose much strength.

"Even if Fiona is no longer classified as a hurricane when it reaches land in Atlantic Canada, it could still maintain hurricane-strength winds," Hubbard said.

The expected transition refers to the mechanics of the storm, which will start drawing its energy from cooler Canadian air as it moves north, rather than just steamy tropical air from the south. And in the process, Fiona will get larger. At that point, the storm will assume the characteristics of a winter nor'easter.

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia's privately owned electric utility, Nova Scotia Power Inc., said it would activate is emergency operations centre on Friday.

"There could be trees that come into contact with power lines causing outages based on the sheer magnitude of the wind speeds coming with this weather system," Nova Scotia Power spokesman Sean Borden told the briefing.

On Sept. 7-8, 2019, post-tropical storm Dorian roared over the Maritimes, its hurricane-force winds knocking out electricity in all three provinces, leaving more than 500,000 homes and businesses in the dark for up to a week. The massive storm caused an estimated $140 million in damage — two-thirds of which was reported in Nova Scotia.

Dorian also knocked out cellphone services across Nova Scotia, prompting howls of protest from across the province.

On Wednesday, Mew said Nova Scotia's Emergency Management Office expected representatives from the main cellphone service providers — Bell, Rogers and Eastlink — to be on hand at the office's command centre this weekend.

Meanwhile, residents of Atlantic Canada and eastern Quebec are being asked to prepare emergency kits that contain enough food and water for up to 72 hours. The kits should also include flashlights, a battery-powered radio and fresh water. As well, residents are being urged to charge their cellphones, secure outdoor furniture and refrain from travel.

Fiona was designated a Category 3 hurricane on Tuesday, and it was upgraded to Category 4 on Wednesday, generating sustained winds at over 213 kilometres per hour after lashing the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Across Puerto Rico, Fiona's winds and rains left most people without power and half of the population without running water amid what officials called historic flooding.

The storm has been blamed for killing four people as it marched through the Caribbean. It was expected to squeeze past Bermuda later this week before picking up speed on its way to Atlantic Canada.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 21, 2022.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press