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'The destruction is almost total'

NetHope’s Director of Global Programs in Humanitarian Disaster Management, and his team are on the ground.

September 21, 2017

By Kristin Kalning

On September 8, NetHope decided to activate its Emergency Response team to the Caribbean, two days after Hurricane Irma made landfall in Antigua and Barbuda. Isaac Kwamy, NetHope’s Director of Global Programs in Humanitarian Disaster Management, and his team are on the ground, assessing the damage after Irma, and experiencing the wrath of Hurricane Maria alongside the affected communities. On September 20, I had the opportunity to reach Isaac in Anguilla, where the hurricane humanitarian hub is located.

Q. You’ve been in this region for nearly two weeks. You’ve witnessed the aftermath of Irma, and the onslaught of Hurricane Maria. Describe what you’ve seen.

A. The devastation from Irma – particularly in St. Martin, the British Virgin Islands, Antigua, Anguilla, Turks and Caicos, and Barbuda – is unimaginable. The destruction is almost total. Bound by water on all sides, the citizens of these small island nations had no chance to escape – and nowhere to escape to.

Isaac Kwamy deplaning on St. Martin following Hurricane Irma.

Now Maria is pounding the Caribbean once again. There has been no communication out of Dominica, a tiny island in the southern Caribbean, except by ham radio. On a scale of one to ten, the damage there was put at nine. Almost all the homes were damaged, with many completely destroyed.

(Editor's note: As of Thursday, September 21, Hurricane Maria had wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico, leaving the entire territory without power. Now a Category 3 storm, Maria is pounding the Dominican Republic with heavy winds and rain.)

Q. What is the state of communications there? Why is communication so important?

A. Communications capabilities are almost completely decimated, and that is NetHope’s initial focus: restoring vital communications for citizens, and the first responders coming to their aid. NetHope’s Crisis Informatics team has played, and will continue to play, a pivotal role in gathering, analyzing, and sharing credible information with NGOs and other partners so that they can make more informed decisions.

Without phone or internet, hospitals cannot fully function. Relief workers cannot coordinate and direct aid to where its most needed. Government agencies have only a vague idea which citizens need help – food, water, shelter, health care. And residents are desperate to connect with loved ones. It’s clear to me here that communication is aid.

Q. Which agencies does NetHope partner with?

A. Our goal is to go where we are most needed, and to avoid overlap. In this instance, our field work has focused on partnerships with Cisco, Digicel, ETC, the International Federation of the Red Cross, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Vodafone Response, Télécoms Sans Frontière, and other local mobile operators.

On the Crisis Informatics side, we are getting incredible support from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), NetHope members, HDX, and Facebook.

Q. What will you do once Maria has subsided?

A. Maria has already devastated Dominica. We are still collecting critical information from Dominica that will help us respond in a well-coordinated and targeted manner. As Maria moves further west, our thoughts are with people of the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the British Virgin Islands.

Q. How long will NetHope be there?

A. It’s hard to tell. This will depend on how quickly local telecommunication providers and mobile operators will get their infrastructure back. Supporting them in doing so will be the best way to contribute to the recovery process after Irma and Maria.

Q. How is NetHope funding this effort?

A. Fortunately, we’ve had great response from longtime, dedicated partners like Microsoft, The Patterson Foundation, Cisco, and Digicel. There is a gap between what we have received and what we need for this ongoing emergency. We hope individuals will contribute, so we can continue our important work here.

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

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