FREEPORT, Bahamas —The liquor stores do brisk business with cases of water. Aid groups and utilities offer giveaways regularly. Everywhere you turn, a professionally printed sign advertises water and ice for sale.
Those signs will probably be there for a while. Almost three months after Hurricane Dorian became the strongest storm to make landfall in the Bahamas, the tap water isn’t safe to drink in Grand Bahama. And it won’t be drinkable until at least June 2020, Grand Bahama Utility Company says.
“Totally unacceptable,” said Iram Lewis, Bahamian minister for disaster recovery. “We cannot wait until June next year.”
When 23 feet of storm surge sloshed over Grand Bahama, one of the largest islands in the archipelago, it destroyed half the homes and sullied the island’s fresh water with salt water. The utility is exploring drilling more wells or building an expensive desalination plant, one of many tough decisions the cash-strapped government has to make as it recovers from the historic storm. Dorian hit the Abacos on Sept. 1 and Grand Bahama on Sept. 2 as a Category 5 hurricane.
While the island nation is out from under the gun of another potentially punishing storm for the next six months, the grueling task of getting Bahamians back into their homes and jobs has barely begun.
In Grand Bahama, business takes place in tents these days. They’re found at airport customs, at the public hospital and in front yards along the outer streets of Freeport.
Joyce Tate, 48, and her family now live in a white dome tent with a view of the rubble that once was their four-bedroom home on Sweetings Cay, on the southern end of the island. Her husband, Robert Tate, a 48-year-old fisherman, lost his two boats and many of his lobster traps in the storm, so he’s trying to earn his living on someone else’s boat for now.
Her three sons, Rojade, 14, Rotario, 12, and Gabriel, 7, are back in school, but they have to wake up extra early for the longer commute to the school buildings that are still standing.
“We’re just trusting God day by day that things will get a little easier,” she said.
The Tate family survived the storm in the roofless wreckage of a neighbor’s home, standing in chest-high water with an upside-down plastic bin over their heads to protect them from deadly flying debris. They waited for 48 hours, Joyce shaking her son Gabriel awake every time he slumped low enough in her arms to touch the floodwaters.
Last Saturday, they lined up outside the half-wrecked gates of a Freeport church for a hot meal, along with more than 600 others. Inside the white tents were volunteers from U.S.-based Third Wave Volunteers scooping black beans, rice, maduros and jerk chicken into tostones cones at the instruction of David Aaron, the 38-year-old chef behind Miami Beach’s Conos restaurant.
His team helped prepare the meal, sponsored by big-time real estate developer Crescent Heights. They fed hundreds at the church and boxed up extra meals for delivery to nearby homes for the elderly and child care centers. Even months after the storm, Aaron said, food is still an important form of aid.
“You go to churches and it’s still 100 people sleeping in the ballroom. It’s still very critical here,” he said.
Dorian’s damage has been estimated at $3.4 billion, which is like the United States losing the economies of Florida, California and Texas combined. It left almost 30,000 people homeless or jobless.
More than 240 people are still missing, Lewis said. And they aren’t done sifting through the rubble on Abaco and identifying bodies. In November, police recovered two more bodies from the shantytown in Abaco known as the Mudd. The death toll is now 69.
“I don’t believe we’ve ever been faced with this level of crisis,” said Donna Mackey, who worked with the Bahamian ministry of tourism for 40 years before retiring in June. She serves as a liaison to the government for Third Wave Volunteers.
Mackey, 66, said the physical impacts of Dorian are hard to spot in Freeport, which was hit primarily with storm surge and not Dorian’s wrathful winds. Many buildings still have their roofs and windows, and most of the rubble scraped from inside the homes has been collected from the curbs.
Inside is where you can smell the mold, see the gutted homes and tents serving as makeshift houses. It’s where you hear the stories of “anxiety and hopelessness” Bahamians share. Since the disaster, she said, the formerly taboo topic of mental health has been more openly discussed.
‘You would look at that house and think nothing went wrong, but you go inside that door and you see,” she said. “The outside public cannot really determine how unbalanced life is right now.”
Allison Thompson, founder of Third Wave Volunteers, has worked in disasters around the world for decades, including in Haiti and Syria. She and her 3,000 volunteers have helped find bodies, clean up rubble and feed the hungry since Dorian first hit. She said the real needs in Freeport, where many displaced people from Abaco or the south end of Grand Bahama fled, are water and housing.
“People are still hungry. There’s a lot of need here,” she said. “Everyone who was washed out from down the island is here now and they still need help.”
Even years after a crisis, experts say housing is the hardest part of recovery.
Hurricane Michael hit Florida’s Panhandle last year, and many residents are still living in FEMA trailers and friends’ homes. The community resource center still sees about 50 to 60 people a day, said Joel Schubert, Bay County’s assistant manager. Federal money is trickling in, and the county hopes to use it to help fund first-time homeownership or even develop affordable subdivisions.
“Housing has (been) and remains on the forefront of our priorities for the next five years,” he said.
In the Florida Keys, two years after Hurricane Irma slashed through the county’s affordable housing core, most reconstruction hasn’t even begun. Residents are waiting for checks from the government or insurance companies to get started, said Helene Wetherington, head of disaster recovery for Monroe County.
“I think hurricane long-term recovery is going to be day-to-day government business in Monroe County for many years to come,” she said.
Similar to when Hurricane Irma smashed into the Keys in 2017 but left tourist capital Key West largely intact, the Bahamian tourism industry has spent a great deal of energy reminding international travelers that Dorian wiped out only the northern part of the archipelago. The Bahamian Ministry of Tourism and Aviation plans to bring a string of journalists and social media influencers to the functional southern part of the country for “positive and educational coverage” as part of its “Open for Business” campaign.
Lewis, with the Bahamian government, said recovery is “going pretty well,” despite the challenges. Debris cleanup is progressing quickly, he said, and the government is in talks to hire even more cleanup crews.
All the seaports are open, and the airport in Abaco is fully open, with the Freeport airport scheduled to open for international travel “any day now,” Lewis said. Power has mostly been restored but has been tripped up in areas where the power company is deciding whether to underground power lines or switch to microgrids, like Northern Abaco.
The government’s planned Family Relief Center, which will temporarily house about 270 families in structures that can withstand 200 mph winds, is set to open in January. Families are expected to stay for up to two years while their homes are rebuilt, “which will take us through another two hurricane seasons,” Lewis said.
Dorian’s mighty winds also blew the caps off oil tanks on Grand Bahama Island, spilling more than 2.3 million gallons of Norwegian oil company Equinor’s product into the nearby protected Caribbean pine forest. Thankfully, said Joseph Darville, director of Save the Bays, the crude oil didn’t end up in the ocean, or in the drinking water, as later tests proved.
But Darville said he was “absolutely horrified” at the damage to the acres of forest, where oil sat knee-deep in some places and coated pine needles for dozens of acres. He said it was 10 days before the company began cleaning up the spill.
“My main concern is that there was very little observation from the government. I sympathize with that because of the catastrophic nature of Dorian,” he said. “They must have pushed the Equinor thing on the back burner. Even marinating in the refrigerator. It wasn’t even on the burner.”
The company has since cleaned up most of the oil, which was largely contained near its coastal facility. Last weekend employees started the forest cleanup, which is much trickier.
“It’s probably going to take at least six months, bringing us right into the hurricane season,” Darville said.