By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
FED-UP Abaco businesses yesterday blasted the island's latest power crisis as "too much" to bear, with visitors leaving or "threatening to leave" due to the extended outages.
Don Cash, a Hope Town council member whose company manages between 115-120 vacation rental properties on Elbow Cay, predicted the situation would cost the island "repeat" tourist business and added: "It's a mess; it really is a mess."
Mr Cash, who runs Elbow Cay Properties with his wife, Carrie, also criticised the 'information vacuum' that Bahamas Power & Light (BPL) had allowed to develop by not providing updates on the problem and likely timeline for when full power will be restored to the entire island.
"The biggest problem is there is no one at the [Wilson City] power plant giving us solid information," he told Tribune Business. "The rumour mill is going wild. One person tells you one thing, another person tells you something else. That's the biggest problem; we don't know what to tell our guests.
"They're threatening to leave. We're three-quarters full. We do 115-120 properties that we manage at Elbow Cay Properties. We are busy. We're always busy, as Hope Town is one of the busiest tourist destinations in the Bahamas.
"We have a lot of properties, treat the guests right, have a lot of repeats, but this is too much... We are having guests that are leaving, saying they can only put up with it for a couple of days. It's a mess. It really is a mess."
Abaco has been without reliable, consistent power since Friday after the final pump for the Wilson City power plant's cooling system blew. This meant the island's main BPL generation plant was forced to completely shut down, with the utility monopoly currently forced to use its antiquated, back-up Marsh Harbour facility that is simply unable to meet customer demand.
This has resulted in 'load shedding' impacting all parts of Abaco yesterday, as BPL shuts off certain areas to provide energy to other locations for several hours before reversing the process. Full power had yet to be restored on the island as Tribune Business went to press last night.
Christina Alston, BPL's chief operating officer, told Tribune Business yesterday that the utility had effectively 'run out of time' to resolve a problem that she and chief executive, Whitney Heastie, has quickly identified upon taking office.
She explained that Wilson City's cooling system pumps, of which there were four, had started failing "one after the other". While the pumps were designed to be "submersible in 150 feet of brackish water", Ms Alston said they were not holding up under the "very caustic" conditions and, as a result, were not lasting as long as they should be.
While BPL had moved to quickly to order a new pump, only one manufacturer - based in Arizona - was found to make a version that matched the Wilson City plant's specifications. Ms Alston said that, as a result, BPL had to accept a 25-30 week "lead time" before it would be ready for delivery.
"We would not have been able to put our hands on a pump like this" in the short-term, Ms Alston said, confirming that the last working one had given out just as the new one left the factory for delivery to the Bahamas.
The BPL chief operating officer said the utility was now looking at a system to redesign that places the pumps above ground, adding: "We'd like to bring ourselves out of a system critical position."
Acknowledging the impact on Abaco residents and businesses, Ms Alston told Tribune Business: "We're very concerned. Whitney and I take this obligation to serve very seriously. We're both utility people.
"I've been a utility person for 27 years going on in the US. The provision of electricity, people no longer consider it a luxury. It's a necessity, and when people are without necessities we all feel it." She declined, though, to place a timeline on when the new cooling system pump will arrive, but said BPL anticipated power being restored to Abaco "some time in the early hours tomorrow [Tuesday]".
Ms Alston, together with BPL chairman, Darnell Osborne, arrived in Abaco yesterday afternoon ahead of last night's Town Meeting, where they were expected to address the four-day outage and residents concerns plus give an update on plans to cope with peak summer demand.
Mr Cash, meanwhile, criticised BPL for failing to keep a sufficient parts inventory to cope with breakdowns such as the cooling system pump shutdown. "They wait for something to go wrong before they act," he added.
While BPL had placed different areas of Abaco on a 'two hours on, four hours off' rotation over the weekend, Mr Cash said power to Elbow Cay had been off since 11am yesterday morning - some five hours before he spoke to this newspaper.
He added that the island's power crisis had sent businesses and homeowners scrambling to stock up on diesel for private generators, with the result that Elbow Cay's primary land-based supplier had run out yesterday.
"People spend so much money to come here, and they can't take a shower," Mr Cash told Tribune Business. "They're afraid to go out in the boat because they don't know if they can shower afterwards. It's frustrating.
"Everyone like myself has been running around trying to get diesel to put in the generator. The main source of diesel on Elbow Cay ran out at the pump. We had to wait for the barge to come up from Marsh Harbour, and that cost me another five hours. They [BPL] just have to do better.
"We're not even in June. Everyone on the island is dreading when we get into June, July and August. It's going to be people that won't return," he continued. "Every summer we lose a lot of people that would return be repeats after they go through the same thing.
"They threaten never to come back. They love this island, but the money they pay to come here and then they can't enjoy themselves because of the power situation. We will lose some tourists through this for sure. We'll lose the ones who planned to come back next year."
Mr Cash, though, said the Hope Town district's resilience always seemed to enable it to cope with the long-standing energy challenges that have plagued the entire island.
"Hope Town always seems to come through it in spite of it, because we know how to handle our guests," he told Tribune Business. "We do what we can to make life comfortable when the power is off.
"It's going to be an impact for sure, but we will all come through OK. Hope Town always does."