FREEPORT, GRAND BAHAMA — A few days after Hurricane Dorian, Amanda Kellowan rummaged through what was left. She had just spent 36 hours in the attic of her home, fleeing from the 30-foot storm surge that swept over her island home of Grand Bahama last September.
“Just everything is gone. I don’t have no clothes right now. This not my clothes, that I’m wearing,” she told WLRN at the time, sifting through piles of soggy miscelanea. Kellowan is a photographer and videographer. She lost all her equipment in the flood.
Family friends agreed to house Kellowan and her parents. For months, she lived with her mother and father in a single, cramped upstairs room. In the beginning, they sweated through nights with no electricity. “It was hell,” she said.
Recently, her family found an apartment to live in while they wait for insurance money. They have electricity and beds of their own. But an essential part of life has not yet gotten back to normal.
The water on Grand Bahama is not what it used to be.
“This is a five-gallon bottle we filled up with distilled water. And this is the tap right here,” Kellowan said.
She filled up a small glass from the kitchen sink, dipped a finger into it and put it in her mouth.
“It tastes salty,” she said. “Once, we tried cooking with it, so we put it in a pot and we boiled it. And at the bottom of the pot you could see grounds. It’s dark, and it’s nasty. And I have to bathe with it.”
Six months after Hurricane Dorian pounded the northern islands of The Bahamas, residents of Grand Bahama, the second-most populated island in the country, still struggle to get access to potable water.
The Category 5 storm hit the Abaco Islands and the island of Grand Bahama with 185 mile-per-hour winds and 30 feet of storm surge that overtook the shores with seawater. On Grand Bahama, the saltwater overflowed the drinking wells nearly 55,000 residents depend upon.
The loss of drinking water on Grand Bahama serves as a case study for how low-lying islands are already being impacted in the most fundamental ways by rising sea levels due to climate change.
It's also a warning about the similar vulnerability of South Florida, since the two regions are not only geographically close but also share almost identical geological features.
“Dorian didn’t just impact some of the wells. It impacted all of our wells and our plants,” said Remington Wilchcombe, the manager of engineering at Grand Bahama Utility Company, which oversees electricity and water on the island. “Three of our four plants went underwater. And one of them — which is our major one, which supplied 60 percent of the island — actually went underwater. So the impact there was a total destruction.”
After the storm waters receded, the company sent hydrologists to assess the damage to the island’s water supply.
“What they found was the entire water table was destroyed by this act of God,” Wilchcombe said.
Wilchcombe stressed the water that is now coming out of taps is being monitored and treated daily by the utility company, and besides the saltiness, it is otherwise safe for other uses like washing cars and bathing.
“It was never this bad,” said security guard and Freeport native Thomas Brooks. Brooks sat on his porch during a recent cool, clear night. Crickets chirped and a distant generator hummed in the background. Inside, his two daughters fixed a meal.
Brooks was lucky during the storm. His home was left unharmed by the flooding, and his electricity was restored relatively quickly, he said. But the water quality is a constant reminder that Hurricane Dorian changed life on the island.
“Matthew, Irma, Wilma, Francis and Jean. The water was back on, I think, like, in two weeks. You know it was like, ‘boil it’ at first, but it was never salty. It was never like this,” Brooks said. “This time it’s still salty six months after the hurricane. So this is the worst it’s ever been.”
Brooks said his family gets their water from a depot set up by churches. They retrieve it in buckets for drinking, cooking and bathing.
“Thank God for the kindness of strangers," he said.
One of the groups that has been helping residents address the drinking water crisis is Mercy Corps, an international relief organization that arrived on the island three days after the storm. The group runs reverse osmosis equipment, purifying and distributing about 20,000 gallons of water a day.
Pumps pull saltwater directly from a contaminated well. The treated water is flushed into huge tanks, which are later shipped to sites across Freeport, the largest city on the island.
Large tanks of potable water are free to tap and are stationed all across the island, from the local YMCA to churches and medical facilities. Restaurants and hotels keep their own tanks, ready to serve and to clean dishes.
“People were prepared for a hurricane when Hurricane Dorian touched down, but what people were not prepared for were 30-foot storm surges and flooding. No one knew that water could cause that level of destruction,” said Kelsey Lundgren, the head of Mercy Corps in The Bahamas.
“One of the things Mercy Corps wants to focus on is how to prepare people to better respond to hurricanes in the future," Lundgren said, "because we know that there will be another one, and that it will be at the level — or, God forbid, we hope it’s not worse than Hurricane Dorian. But this is the way the world is going.”
A 2004 assessment of The Bahamas’ water supply by the Pentagon offers a look into the long-term vulnerabilities of the island chain and the potential implications of saltwater intrusion on a wide scale.
Grand Bahama has the “most extensive and plentiful ground water reserves of the Bahamian islands,” second only to the mostly unpopulated Andros Island, according to the report. Both islands saw some saltwater contamination from Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Hurricanes Francis and Jeanne in 2004. Those hurricanes did not pose a worst-case scenario.
“Sea level rise due to climate change will exacerbate the situation,” explained the report, written under the George W. Bush Administration. “The aquifers are very shallow, and are at great risk of becoming inundated with saline water even with a small rise in sea level.”
The U.S. military has a presence on several Bahamian islands, including underwater testing sites on Andros Island, which was spared by Hurricane Dorian’s storm surge.
Freeport is mostly back in business and accepting tourists, the drivers of the local economy. Most of the hardest-hit areas have been cleared out of debris. Business is still recovering from the post-storm slump, but life has largely returned to normal, with the exception of having to drive to distribution sites to pick up drinking water.
Outside the city, the situation is more dire. On the far east end of the island, in the village of Pelican Point, crews are still working to bring back electricity. Some locals whose homes were destroyed are sleeping in tents.
For the nearly 50-mile drive to the opposite end of the island, dead pine forests line both sides of the road, a lasting reminder of how much ecological damage the saltwater inflicted. Saw palmettos have revived some green in the underbrush, but mile after mile of dead pine trees loom above them with dreary, grayish browns.
“All of this down from here to Freeport was just green. Everything was just beautiful. But, you know, Hurricane Dorian just gave us here this whole devastation,” said Jamal Russell, a resident of Mclean’s Town on the eastern tip of the island. The area took the worst of the storm on Grand Bahama.
Russell lost two family members in the hurricane. Their remains were located, but he fears the environmental disaster could make it harder to find the remains of the many people who are still missing.
The pine forests have long been destinations for birdwatching, but the birds have virtually disappeared.
“Couple of days ago, I saw, what — the first four buzzards? The first time I saw a buzzard for a long time,” he said. “And that’s the only way they’re gonna be able to find bodies and whatnot. If the birds don’t come back, they’re gonna have a hard time finding them.”
The impact of the saltwater on the expansive pine forests is a bad sign for the island’s future drinking water resources. Many of the drinking water wells that have been used on Grand Bahama were located deep in the forests along the northern part of the island. In recent years, those northern forests had started dying off as saltwater slowly encroached. The south side of the island has slightly higher elevation and long signified other drinking water options for years to come.
“We used to look at the forest on the south side and say, ‘that is the future’ for these wells. But now even that was flooded with saltwater,” said Geron Turnquest, the general manager of the Grand Bahama Utility Company.
The geology of Grand Bahama is similar to that of South Florida. Both sit on porous limestone and share broad arrays of plant and animal life.
“Even now we use The Bahamas as the model for how our sediments were formed here in the past,” said Mike Sukop, a professor of environmental science at Florida International University.
The two are so similar that what happened in The Bahamas can serve as a forewarning to how the mainland might face a comparable storm.
In recent years, the drinking wells that residents of Miami-Dade County rely on have been slowly moving westward, as the ones along the coast have gotten saltier. Sukop said that if South Florida saw a storm surge like what The Bahamas experienced with Hurricane Dorian, it could potentially impact drinking wells even farther west than the Florida Turnpike.
“Worst-case scenarios definitely have some water piling up in the western parts of the county — Miami-Dade County in particular — where we get our water from mostly these days,” said Sukop, referencing models from the National Hurricane Center. “But then, in Broward County especially, a lot of the communities have the well fields much closer to the sea, so they could potentially be impacted a lot more easily by a storm surge like that.”
The Florida Keys pipe in water from wells on the southern mainland of Florida, which could also be “quite vulnerable to surge and overtopping,” Sukop said.
There is a small advantage to living on top of porous limestone, which lets both rainwater and saltwater seep right through into drinking water aquifers. Over time, enough rainfall can slowly repair contaminated aquifers, as long as they aren't flooded continuously by rising seas.
In Grand Bahama, the utility company and the government have drilled new wells on the very highest points on the entire island. To their relief, there is still untapped freshwater in them. The highest points on the island are roughly 40 feet above sea level, barely escaping the 30-foot surge that Hurricane Dorian carried. While those wells are operating, rainfall might be able to repair the damaged areas over time, leaders hope.
“What Dorian did was show us the areas we should no longer focus on, because parts of this island that had never seen flooding, flooded in Dorian,” said Philcher Grant, the director of corporate affairs with the Grand Bahama Port Authority, the quasi-governmental corporation that regulates utilities on the island and serves the role of local government. “It narrowed the focus of where we need to be installing new wells. And part of our plan to get to islandwide potability is the installation of these new wells.”
The new wells should be pumping fresh, safe drinking water into faucets across the island by sometime in May.
“We’re very confident that those plans are achievable,” Grant said.
Yet the highest elevation on the island only goes so high. In the very long term, the local utility and the local government are exploring what it could take to ensure drinking water for years to come.
“We are evaluating the best business case for reverse osmosis on a large scale,” said Wilchcombe of the Grand Bahama Utility Company. “We understand that we may experience storms like this again, God forbid it. But we are looking at desalination by reverse osmosis in the future as a contingency, and also more of a solution to make sure we maintain what we want to maintain, which is safe, potable water.”
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