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In Meat Cove, a flood-ravaged community makes its own help

Chris MacKinnon and his wife, Eileen MacLellan, swam, hiked and forded their way to Eileen's father, Kenneth, who uses a wheelchair.

paul darrow The Globe and Mail

In flip-flops and sneakers, a two-person relief party swam through ocean surf, hiked steep hills and forded a swollen river to reach the flood-ravaged community of Meat Cove.

As soon as they reached land on Sunday and found themselves alone on the remote coast of northern Cape Breton, the boat that brought them disappearing in the distance, Eileen MacLellan and Chris MacKinnon realized that their decision to return home from a weekend shopping trip to help with the cleanup was a bad idea.

The couple from Meat Cove had stayed Saturday night in nearby Bay St. Lawrence. They were frantic with worry the next morning about family members and the tourists at the MacLellans' campground after heavy rain and washouts cut off the community overnight. Unwilling to wait hours or days for officials to get them back safely, they arranged for a whale-watching boat to bring them to the mouth of Meat Cove Brook, just below the campground.

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"We didn't know when we could get in, so we tried to get in as soon as possible," Mr. MacKinnon said on Tuesday. "You don't realize what you can do when things seem life-threatening."

Power was out and Mr. MacKinnon, 33, was the only one who could fix the campground's water system.

But rough seas and debris made it too dangerous to land near the campground. Farther up the coast, they came within 15 metres of shore. Unable to get closer because of the waves, they swam ashore and set out on a two-hour hike through the woods.

"It was freezing," said Ms. MacLellan, who ended up bruised and battered from the trek in flimsy sandals. "So cold, the wind was on you."

Word eventually got through by phone that they were coming, and a local on an ATV went looking. They struggled into town half-frozen.

They were particularly concerned about Ms. MacLellan's father, Kenneth MacLellan, who has health problems and uses a wheelchair.

"When I knew no one could get in and out I thought of him," said Ms. MacLellan, 23. "If anything happened to him I could never forgive myself."

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Their determination typifies the spirit shown by Meat Cove residents in the past few days. Amid grousing about the pace of government support, people here have worked to assist each other and make the best of their situation.

"People are great here. They really helped us out," said Ontarian Jim Dadson, 42, who is vacationing in Meat Cove and tried to flee with his family during the rain Saturday night. His camper ended up trapped between two damaged sections of road, but he said he's happy to be stuck there and wouldn't mind staying. "I should've bought a lottery ticket before I came. I'd never have to go home."

Although it's a beautiful spot in which to be trapped, with its sheer cliffs, spectacular ocean view, and rugged beauty, the situation remains precarious. The flood - residents described it as sounding "like a freight train" - tore into river banks. The water undercut the road and launched trees, construction materials and other debris into the ocean. Wind would push the flotsam back in, making it dangerous for boats, leaving a helicopter as the only safe way into the community.

<iframe width="600" height="450" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" marginheight="0" marginwidth="0" src=",-60.471497&spn=0.84776,1.645203&z=9&output=embed"></iframe><br /><small>View <a href=",-60.471497&spn=0.84776,1.645203&z=9&source=embed" style="color:#0000FF;text-align:left">Meat Cove, NS</a> in a larger map</small>

The tourist-reliant town has probably seen the last of its paying guests this year, leaving many wondering how they will get through the winter without the autumn trade.

But the weather has improved, and several small boats have been able to land. Most tourists were evacuated late Monday, and local businesses have been offering free food to the rest. The Canadian Red Cross showed up on Tuesday with emergency supplies and the promise of more if needed.

The provincial government has promised that work is imminent on a temporary bridge. Taking matters into their own hands, Mr. Dadson and several locals were working on Tuesday to jury rig an ATV bridge over a washed-out section of road.

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Among those helping move supplies were Ms. MacLelland and Mr. MacKinnon, whose return to town on the weekend left Kenneth MacLellan shaking his head.

"I didn't know they were coming," Mr. MacLellan said. "If I knew I would've totally flatly told them not to."

Most of the guests at Meat Cove Camping were able to leave on Monday. Only one couple remains. It could take weeks to reopen the road, but Jim Mullet opted to stay for now.

"I'm a willing capture," said the retiree, who noted that he's as happy waiting here as at his farm in Musquodoboit.

"This story here has tragedy in it, and hardship for these poor people, but also the positive human efforts to help," Mr. Mullet said. "A lot of us are going to look at it as a very positive experience in our lives. I'm certainly never going to forget this."

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More

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