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 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.'”
That photo — taken on a Wednesday — is the only thing hanging on Hinks’s walls.
Leamon, 73, died three days later — on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022 — when post-tropical storm Fiona violently ripped through the southwest coast of Newfoundland, bringing significant damage, lost homes, flooding and washed-out roads. Port aux Basques declared a state of emergency.
The body of Leamon, a grandmother, was found on 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.
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 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.
What On Earth29:16Sea change in Port aux Basques Newfoundland
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, but he says 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.
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 either 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 confirmed that almost $14 million has been paid to 34 property owners.
The government said that the “majority of 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.”
“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 dremel 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 CPAP 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.
“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 locals 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.
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 spends a lot of time in a recliner by the window, and he 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.”