By Alexandra Alpert, Membership Director
San Juan, Puerto Rico – It’s been three weeks since Hurricane Maria tore through the Caribbean region, devastating islands already damaged by Hurricane Irma just days before. Puerto Rico caught the brunt of Maria’s ire, taking down the island’s aging power grid and its telecommunications capabilities. These failures, compounded by impassable roads and flooding, have hampered the distribution of food, water, and health care.
NetHope and our technology partners have joined forces to help restore connectivity to Puerto Rico. As a native Spanish-speaker, I joined our team on the ground about a week ago, acting as an interpreter for the NetHope-led team. I’ve spent the week meeting with NetHope members responding in the region, collecting information on where they are working and understanding their priorities for communications and connectivity. Currently, we are working with American Red Cross, Americares, International Medical Corps, Direct Relief, Samaritan’s Purse, Mercy Corps, Oxfam America and World Vision.
I spent a day in Caguas, Puerto Rico, with Dr. Hernando Garzón from International Medical Corps. He and his team were in the area to assess health clinics, and to determine how to help providers deliver care without power and Wi-Fi. Clinics throughout the island are struggling to find generators to keep vaccines and medicines refrigerated, and connectivity is critical to access patient records and to communicate with other clinics.
Connectivity means food, resources
I also spent a day with an amazing team of Google and Facebook volunteers working with NetHope to bring connectivity to Utuado (pictured at top). Utuado is a rural town with many homes in the mountains, and it sustained significant damage from the hurricane. The mountainside roads are destroyed and first responders have not been able to reach many communities. While I was there, torrential rains further soaked the area, which heightened concerns about mudslides. And the longer there is standing water and no electricity, the more public health authorities worry about the potential of waterborne diseases like cholera.
Connectivity for Utuado means access to information and desperately needed resources. Families that rely on la Tarjeta de Familia (or “family card,” which works like food stamps) are unable to access food assistance because of lack of connectivity. Local stores are operating mostly with cash, which is hard to come by.
Getting food to the mountains of Utuado has become a priority for World Vision, a founding NetHope member. World Vision requested our help to support one of their partner churches, Iglesia El Calvario, that was distributing food, water, and clothing. With connectivity, Iglesia El Calvario, is expected to become a community hot spot and FEMA registration site, and will continue to be a distribution center for Utuado.
When we visited the church, there were about two dozen local volunteers loading a truck with water and other supplies. Rosemary Mansini, the pastor’s wife, and her two children were focusing on coordinating supplies and volunteers. Like so many volunteers I met in Puerto Rico, these residents were also victims of the hurricane, but had dedicated themselves to provide assistance to those most in need.
Equipment ready to be distributed
NetHope has shipped over six tons of equipment from our staging area in Miami into the San Juan airport, where it will be distributed to locations where the need is most acute. We have also increased the number of NetHope staff deployments, and now have a full team of exceptionally talented people on the ground. It’s hard to say how long NetHope will be in Puerto Rico because so much needs to be done.
NetHope is grateful to our dedicated partners, which include Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Cisco, The Patterson Foundation, and Blackbaud, for providing funding during this disaster response. These funds are earmarked specifically to help provide emergency telecommunications solutions and help mobile network operators in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean restore services.
In addition, Cisco, Facebook, Google, Save the Children and Red52 have all sent staff to the region to work with the NetHope, and Cisco’s Meraki team has supported NetHope with state-of-the-art networking equipment. NetHope’s Crisis Informatics team has had surge capacity support from Facebook, MapBox, and SAS Institute.
Working together, our focus is on providing essential rapidly deployable communications solutions while working with the mobile network operators and internet service providers to restore services for the long term.
To donate to NetHope’s Hurricane Relief Fund, please click here. Thank you for your continued support.