By Kate Hurowitz

Editor’s note: Kate Hurowitz, an internal communications manager at Google, was a member of the NetHope team deployed to Puerto Rico and the team’s official storyteller.

The headline of a yellowed news clipping hanging on the wall of the Emergency Operations Center in Canóvanas reads “Rescues in Canóvanas.” The accompanying picture shows Mayor Jose “Chemo” Soto and David Sanchez, members of a search and rescue team, rowing residents to safety after a tropical storm flooded their homes. The year was 2004. The storm was Jeanne.

The Canóvanas Search and Rescue team is no stranger to natural disasters and dramatic rescues. In addition to the storms that occasionally hit the island, the municipality’s proximity to El Yunque National Forest means the team is sometimes called in to search for missing hikers and rafters. So they were ready to go when Maria made landfall. The team gathered at the Office of Emergency Management, and after a short meeting with Mayor Soto, they headed out into the storm.

Only this time, it was Mayor Lornna Soto, pictured above. Chemo retired in 2014 after a colorful 24 years as mayor (his hunt for the elusive chupacabras is a story for another day), and his daughter took over running the municipality of 46,000 east of San Juan. She’s cut from the same cloth as her father, and didn’t think twice about facing the wind and rain. And in the weeks after the storm, her office has been working around the clock to coordinate relief efforts. “We have a team here scheduling water and food deliveries, and coordinating trash collection and the clearing of debris,” said Soto. “We’re also coordinating logistics for the shelters, and visits to residents who are sick and bedridden. We’re distributing tarps and processing applications for FEMA and public assistance.”

The unprecedented impact of the storm has created problems this seasoned team has never encountered. On a normal day – before Maria – they received an average of 100 emergency calls. Now, aside from radios and the occasional blip of a signal on their personal cell phones, they have no way of communicating directly with residents or with the authorities. People report problems by coming to the center, or by flagging the team down while they’re out in one of the rescue vehicles. Every day, the team sends a runner to the convention center in San Juan to provide updates to the agencies based there: FEMA, the military, the Puerto Rican government. They hear back in the afternoon. “It’s like we’ve gone back 50 years,” says David Sanchez (pictured). 

In addition to requests for food and water, there are health risks to report. Canóvanas has been the site of several cases of Leptospirosis, a deadly bacteria found in water contaminated by animal urine. While the water shortage has eased in recent days, the risk of a serious outbreak remains. Needless to say, the team needs better communication tools—in conditions like these, it’s a matter of life and death.

That’s where Cisco’s Tactical Operations team (TacOps, for short) stepped in. They are Cisco’s dedicated crisis response team; moving quickly to disaster zones to repair infrastructure and restore connectivity. They’ve played a critical role in many of NetHope’s deployments, and Puerto Rico is no different – to date the team has installed satellite and other communications technologies to more than two dozen communities on the island. In this case, they provided the Canóvanas Emergency Operations Center with a Phone Kit, a cloud-based telephony system providing IP phones designed to operate with low power consumption. With the phones installed, Canóvanas residents have a way of reporting an issue, and the emergency operations teams can coordinate much more effectively with the authorities.

It’ll be a long time before anything feels normal around here again, but re-establishing essential communications channels is a crucial step in the right direction.

To donate to NetHope’s Hurricane Relief Fund, please click here. Thank you for your continued support.

Filed Under: Emergency Response, Hurricane Relief