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 its official mission storyteller.
The road to Castañer is driveable now, but Maria has left her mark everywhere. Large piles of debris have been pushed to the side of the narrow, winding road by hardworking road crews. Traffic lights swing uselessly over intersections. Dead power lines dangle precariously overhead and crunch under the tires of passing cars. Collapsed homes sit next to others that made it through the storm relatively unscathed, and the normally lush valleys are pocked with brown spots—though new leaves are starting to unfurl, following days of heavy rain.
A town of several thousand located deep in the mountainous interior of the island, Castañer is among the communities both hardest hit by the hurricane, and hardest to reach. Roads and bridges throughout the area washed out during the storm. And like most of the island, the town is still without electricity, internet, or cellular service a month after the storm. The small hospital and several local businesses are running off generator power, but fuel is hard to come by.
Damaris (pictured above with her family) misses her son. Wilfredo Jr. left Castañer for New York the day before the storm, and it was more than two weeks before she was able to let him know that she and her family are safe. They traveled to Arecibo, on the coast, where parts of the city have limited Wi-Fi connectivity. They exchanged WhatsApp messages, and a homesick Wilfredo let his mom know that he missed talking to her every night before he went to sleep. When the family returned to Arecibo a second time—no easy feat, in a town where many people don’t have cars, and where so many of the roads were unpassable—they couldn’t find a signal.
Damaris greeted the NetHope team when we arrived at the tiny town hall in the center of town, where she’s an administrator for the municipal government. Her office has been operating with radios since the storm, coordinating across several nearby communities. The team immediately set to work assembling a satellite connection, with the goal of establishing two Wi-Fi networks. One is for official business, which will come in handy next week, when FEMA sets up in the town hall and starts processing applications for assistance. The other is a free, public Wi-Fi hotspot for the community to use. Since beginning operations in Puerto Rico two weeks ago, the NetHope team has provided over 15 communities like Castañer with internet connectivity.
As the team worked, several Castañer residents stopped by the office. Idamaris and her neighbor Sol talked about the days following the storm, when the entire community came together to help each other, prepare food, and visit with older neighbors who were confined to their homes.
But like Damaris, most residents couldn't contact family members living “afuera,” or outside of the island, for weeks. And Idamaris, a nursing student, is finding it difficult to keep up with her studies because so many assignments involve internet research. “If your professor tells you to look something up, you worry about where you can go to find an internet connection. It affects you—you’re studying because you want to be something in life.”
After about two hours of work, a joyful shout: “We have internet!” Tears sprang to Damaris’ eyes as she turned on her phone, which immediately started chirping with unread messages. In that moment, everything changed: not only can she do more to help her community, but she can also communicate with Wilfredo whenever she’s thinking of him—or at least between the hours of 8am and 4pm, while the generator is running.
Moments like these are just another reminder that information is aid, both pragmatically and emotionally.
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