WESTPORT – Raymond Robicheau had just finished saying he’d seen rough weather before, when a great big sea demolished the building he was in.
“Within a half hour my whole store was gone, everything washed away,” he remembers now, clear as a bell, forty years later.
Robicheau, now 92, owned one of two grocery stores in Westport on Brier Island. He went to work with his teenaged daughter on Feb. 2, 1976 same as any other day, about 8 a.m.
The power was out when they got there and it was cold in the store so he told his daughter to go home.
The waves were already pounding up under the store, which, like many of the buildings on the Westport waterfront, was built out over the beach on posts.
Store goods on the shelves were shaking and rocking and Robicheau got busy taking breakable items down off the shelf.
“This was a normal thing for a storm,” he said.
Not long after that the phone rang and it was the Coast Guard calling to tell him to get out of his store, there was a big sea coming.
“I’ve been here when it was rougher than this,” he said and continued working.
“I heard this big crash and when I came out of the office there was about three feet of water came in through the back of the store and I just left everything and made for the front door,” he said.
When he got out on the main street, the water was up to his waist.
He started to drive his truck up the hill to dry land but the water stalled the engine – luckily a neighbour came by with a tractor and towed him out of the water.
When he finally got turned around and looked, his store was gone.
“That building had been there a hundred years – it was all made out of great big heavy wood but a big sea came in and lifted it right up off the posts and crashed it all down and it floated out the harbour on the flood,” he said.
His business was a conglomeration of buildings including the two-storey grocery store, a blacksmith shop, a china shop and a meat room, two smoke houses, a salt shed and a fish shed and a herring shed.
Later he learned the big sea was made of three waves like a tsunami.
“The first one demolished the herring shed, the second one took all the pieces of wood and drove in the store and the third one lifted it off all together,” he said.
He and his wife went on the beach and found crates of canned goods with the labels washed off.
“We lived off canned goods with no labels for days,” he said. “I thought I was able to guess what they were but lots of times I thought I was opening beans and it was dog food.”
Worst of all for Robicheau he operated his business by extending credit.
“All of those records were washed away in the storm,” he said. “Luckily I had just sent out my bills on Feb. 1 so the people who owed me knew, but I had no idea what anyone owed me.”
Everyone was asking if he was going to open again.
“I have no idea, I have no money, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said.
Customers, neighbours and friends on the islands were quick to help.
“Some who owed came in and paid, some never showed up,” he said. “Other people who didn’t owe me gave me money. I had a gift from a person all the way from Hawaii; I had $1,000 from a lady on the islands here.
“Brad Delaney, he ran the snow plow, he was not a wealthy person but he had always been my customer, he took out all the money he had in the bank, which was $700.
“Raymond I can’t afford to give this to you but I’m going to and I’ll take it up in trade,” remembers Robicheau. “That was a real friend.”
Other friends in Mahone Bay built modular homes for a living and their sons arrived two days after the storm and helped build shelves and counters in another building.
His suppliers sent two truckloads of sale goods and marked the invoice “To be paid when sold.”
The floor in the little building gave way under the weight of the groceries and the fire department (Robicheau was the first fire chief on the island) came and helped move everything back outside, re-built the floor and helped move it all back in.
In all 27 fish plants and buildings along the waterfront were demolished. The road and bridge to the southern side of the island was washed out and the power was out for 10 days.
The Digby Courier of Feb. 5, 1976 had few details from the islands but still identified one of the “worst happenings” of the storm to be the “collapse of Raymond Robicheau’s general store on Brier Island.”
Robicheau remembers Digby MLA Joe Casey and an MLA from Yarmouth landing on the island in a helicopter on Feb. 3 to survey the damage.
Brier and Long Island were both declared disaster areas and $4 million were allocated to help people rebuild.
R.E. Robicheau’s Store is still in the family, owned and operated now by Raymond’s daughter Joyce and her husband Wally Devries.
Raymond says he never saw a storm like that before or since.
“And I hope we never do,” he said.