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Rebuilding Puerto Rico and the Bahamas After Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Dorian

A few weeks after a disaster hits, the focus shifts toward reconstruction. Following Hurricane Dorian, the people of the Bahamas have found their homes damaged or leveled to the ground. Houses are now ghostly shells of debris. An estimated 70,000 people have been left homeless by the storm.

Hurricane Dorian left catastrophic damage in the Bahamas.

“We have nothing left so… we just have to see what [lies ahead],” said Romain, a father of four. He hid his children under a bathroom sink to protect them during the category 5 storm.

Hurricane Dorian tore apart Romain’s house. The flooding that the storm caused also led to saltwater contamination of water sources. Stored-water supplies have been ruined by the 20-foot surge and sustained 185 mph winds. With no viable freshwater sources on the islands, Water Mission is using a specialized water purification process called reverse osmosis to give survivors like Romain access to safe water.

Romain stands in what remains of his home after Hurricane Dorian.

Reverse osmosis is a process that filters saltwater before it is treated. Each reverse osmosis system can produce enough safe water for thousands of people daily. The systems will remain in place for as long as necessary, will be optimized and reconfigured as needs change, and will serve survivors to and through reconstruction.

Historically, Water Mission has responded to both emergent and long-term needs that result from a disaster situation. In the Bahamas, as in previous disaster response initiatives, the goal is to not only offer immediate access to safe water; we also assist local leaders and communities in rebuilding, and aim to equip them for the lengthy and complex work of reconstruction.

Water Mission staff evaluate a reverse osmosis machine in the Bahamas.

This month marks two years since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. In 2017, Water Mission’s disaster response teams moved quickly to assess the situation in Puerto Rico and develop an appropriate plan for providing safe water to the island.

Puerto Rico had a unique problem: hundreds of rural communities had functional water systems in place, but they were inoperable because the power had been knocked out. Our team focused on reconnecting existing water systems to reliable power sources. For many communities, the answer was solar power.

After Hurricane Maria, electricity was knocked out for most of Puerto Rico.

Weather-related power outages still occur throughout the island. Because of this, we have installed independent solar micro-grids that can support safe water production when the island loses power. And we are about to install a Kohler power-blending unit, which switches between solar and grid power when necessary — ensuring that water is flowing continually, day and night.

In some parts of Puerto Rico, we are finishing work in schools that will serve as community shelters for future emergencies. According to Water Mission’s project manager in Puerto Rico, Matt Conger, “We have modified the plumbing, added extra faucets in the schools’ kitchens, and assembled kits with two water tanks. The tanks will be filled by the fire department prior to a hurricane and should provide water for a week.”

With more than 1,100 solar-powered installations worldwide at the time of Hurricane Maria, Water Mission was perfectly suited to help.

We have worked with the American Red Cross, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Lab, and government entities to ensure the success of these projects in Puerto Rico. Cooperating with the local government in Puerto Rico as well as other NGOs is the most strategic and efficient way to help in such a situation. We maintain this perspective in the Bahamas.

“With out nonprofit partner, Water Mission, the Red Cross is reaching our goal of installing 20 micro-grids to power community wells in Puerto Rico—often the only source of water for those not connected to the public water system.”

– American Red Cross, September 2019

While access to safe water is an important and immediate need, it is not the only one. World Central Kitchen is serving food to both Bahamians and responders, and Heart to Heart International is providing medical care. These are just two of the other organizations on the ground in the Bahamas, and we are providing them with safe water so that they can operate and bring much-needed relief.

Entire communities were devastated on the island of Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas.

The road to recovery is long, both in the Bahamas and in Puerto Rico. Working with local municipalities, other NGOs, local leaders, community members, and corporate partners ensures that our responses to Hurricane Dorian and Hurricane Maria are efficient and viable now and in the future.

We know that our brothers and sisters in the Caribbean wish to have their homes and nations restored. As Romain said, “We want everybody to come back to living [in] our place, on our island. Please come back. That’s what we need.”

Support long-term reconstruction in communities affected by disasters.