The flight from New York to Bermuda might be a short one, but the two places are world's apart. The minute you arrive on the small British island territory that sits on the same parallel as the Carolina's in the North Atlantic, you're greeted by postcard worthy scenery of palm trees and white sand beaches. It's a stark contrast to the traffic and concrete on the Long Island Expressway that had surrounded me just a few hours earlier en route to Kennedy Airport.
After passing through customs and making a quick stop at the duty-free shop for a bottle of Goslings (maybe the only bargain on the entire island), I found myself in the backseat of a cab with my driver giving me a history lesson on the island and some tips on what to do during my stay. At one point during the forty-five minute drive from Hamilton Parish to my destination in Warwick Parish, he casually pointed out how the roofs on all the houses are white, something I hadn't noticed despite having been staring out the window the entire drive.
Every single roof, as far as the eye could see, looked identical - snow white with steps that become more discernible the closer you get.
And besides just being an aesthetically pleasing compliment to the array of pastel colored homes that we passed, it was explained to me that the roofs actually serve a much more utilitarian purpose. Because there is no significant form of fresh water anywhere on the island, no rivers, no lakes and no aquifers, the main source of drinking water comes from rainfall. The method used to harvest the rain is to capture it in gutters attached to the roofs and funnel it into underground storage containers that sit beneath each house.
This means that every single home on the island is self-sufficient, requiring each household to manage their own supply, a task that becomes more important during times of drought. The practice has even made its way into building regulations, which require that for every square foot of roof, a home must have eight gallons of tank space. The reason for the steps is so when there is heavy rainfall they will slow down the flow in order to maximize what is able to be captured.
While that all makes perfect sense, the obvious question I had is why do the roofs need to be all white? As it turns out, the heavy limestone roofs that are designed to withstand hurricane force winds were historically covered in a white lime mortar, which carried with it anti-bacterial properties for the purpose of purifying the rain water when it came in contact with the surface. Nowadays, a whitewash of lime paint is required every couple years, otherwise, the roofs begin to acquire a grayish tint, which many attribute to air pollution from the high number of automobiles on the island. As a result, the water that gets captured is of poorer quality. The whiter the roof, the cleaner the water that fills the tank.
The average rainfall in Bermuda each year is over fifty inches, an amount that far exceeds Seattle, a city known for its rain, so there is no shortage of potential supply that will fall from the sky. That fact, however, doesn't mean the island is immune from droughts. While on my visit I kept hearing how the island was in the midst of a dry spell, something that seemed to be a stress point for some people I spoke with. One morning when I was heading out with my golf clubs my neighbor was simultaneously heading to work on her moped. She warned me that the course would likely be dry and brown as a result of the lack of recent rainfall, and revealed that she, herself, was more worried about the water level in her tank than having green fairways.
On my last night on the island I was awoken by torrential downpour, which I imagine created a certain sense of relief among residents. The rain continued into the morning, and while waiting for my cab to the airport, I was able to see the roofs in action. As the rainfall gently rolled down the steps, on its way to the gutters before, ultimately, getting captured in the holding tanks, I couldn't help but appreciate getting the opportunity to witness this age old process.