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Rebuilding Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

After Hurricane Maria destroyed the power grid in Puerto Rico, nonprofits like NetHope have helped rebuild network connectivity—and carve out a lifeline for the island.

Rami Shakra, field connectivity director, NetHope

Rami Shakra is an indefatigable aid worker who has spent more than a decade assisting regions suffering from war, famine and natural disaster. When Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, Shakra knew the scope of the disaster necessitated immediate help.

“I saw that the devastation [was] on such a large scale—especially with the power outage,” said Shakra, a field connectivity director at NetHope, a nonprofit that helps re-establish communication services in regions affected by disaster. “I volunteered to go to Puerto Rico right away.”

But, he acknowledged, rebuilding Puerto Rico after Maria overwhelmed him. “The more you dug, the more you found out that there were more places that you needed to address. It just felt like it never ended in terms of who needed connectivity.”

Shakra flew by chartered plane from Antigua; direct transportation to Puerto Rico was severely curtailed. After he landed on the island in September 2017, Shakra immediately saw Maria's imprint everywhere he turned. “The trees and the poles were all broken and fallen onto the streets,” he recalled. Bridges had been severely damaged, leaving residents stranded. Homes were flooded with several inches of water, and running water was scarce. “I walked out into San Juan and I just said, ‘Wow. Where do you start rebuilding?’”

Indeed, Maria’s reach was massive. The storm left some 3.4 million residents of the U.S. territory without electricity. Four months on, power had been restored to only about 70% of the island.

Matt Altman: network engineer, Cisco TacOps

Network connectivity brings a lifeline

Despite the daunting impact of the storm, NetHope’s work and partnership with other organizations started to bring connectivity, progress and hope to the island. NetHope works closely, for example, with Cisco’s Tactical Operations (TacOps) team. TacOps deploys engineers and coordinators on the ground to reestablish network connectivity in hard-hit regions.

NetHope and Cisco TacOps often work in lockstep on-site. “We couldn’t do our work without TacOps,” Shakra said. Operating in more than 180 countries, NetHope connects teams with needy regions and coordinates aid efforts. TacOps is the implementation arm that deploys network connectivity. This natural synergy between the two organizations makes sense: Together with Save the Children, Cisco Systems cofounded NetHope in 2001.

“[Connectivity] is a critical lifeline for people,” said Matt Altman, a network engineer on the TacOps team. “When you bring that up, even a small amount, it’s one less stress,” Altman said. “You start hearing the dings, the messages coming through as people get online. And it’s almost a relief when people see that connectivity come back up.”

Milton Riutort: communications manager, University of Puerto Rico, Utuado

Connecting university staff and students

The University of Puerto Rico, Utuado, which is nestled in a mountainous, rural area of the island, faced huge challenges. Even after students and professors returned to their classrooms, obstacles remained. The university serves nearly 60,000 students on 11 campus locations.

“Emotionally, it helped to have classes resume,” said Milton Riutort, who manages communications at the Utuado campus. “But the reality was that it was more difficult because we didn’t have a way yet to restore the Internet.”

Utuado’s HR, administrative dean and student financial aid offices couldn’t do their work without access to the servers that reside on the university’s central administrative campus. Staffers had to drive to other campuses to access applications. The financial aid process ground to a halt, jeopardizing students’ disbursements, and even putting the university at risk of losing accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

“We couldn’t finish the financial aid processes without Internet access,” Riutort said. The university was getting pressure to resolve the problem despite lack of connectivity. “That was hard.”

NetHope gave the university a glimmer of hope. During a key meeting with a Microsoft executive, the chancellor learned about NetHope. The executive explained that the organization might be able to help get the university back online, despite the extensive damage to the power grid.

After the meeting, NetHope and TacOps made their way to Utuado. “NetHope came looking for me—they had my name from the chancellor,” Riutort said. Within a day of arriving on campus, a radio had been installed on top of a building.

The radio communication system uses analog frequencies to establish Internet connectivity, though the signal enabled limited connectivity. Ultimately, the Utuado campus reserved the NetHope network for staff and then created a second, open wireless network for students to use. This segmentation helped prevent the staff’s network from being overloaded. “Yes, broadband access is more limited,” Riutort said, “but it is running.”

It was in that moment that campus life turned a corner, Riutort recalled. Critically important: The university could begin to disburse financial aid. “NetHope was really the solution that helped us,” Riutort said. “It gave us the Internet tools to finish the needed tasks.”

After Hurricane Maria: The long road home

Rebuilding Puerto Rico will take years. It is a long-term effort to restore the island’s deeply battered infrastructure, from the power grid to vulnerable roadways, buildings and more.

Even four and a half months after Maria hit, Puerto Rico requires far more extensive relief than agencies typically provide. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), for example, continues to provide food, water and other services—far longer than it generally delivers aid after a disaster.

FEMA has tasked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with rebuilding the electric grid to better sustain a future disaster. This bodes well because the rebuilding effort is being done in a forward-looking way. “If a transmission station was damaged and it’s in the flood plain, we don’t have to build it back there. We can move it,” Michael Byrne, the federal coordinating officer for FEMA, told the Washington Times.

“I think we’re in a position, the strongest position I’ve ever been in, in a disaster recovery, I would say, to do the right thing and not just build back what was there,” Byrne said.

In January 2018, aid workers in Puerto Rico met to brainstorm on the lessons learned in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Volunteers from Google, Facebook, Ericsson and Cisco as well as teams from NetHope and TacOps discussed key takeaways. See the article “Eight IT disaster recovery lessons learned from Hurricane Maria” for an in-depth look at these IT strategies, which included key recommendations:

  • cultivate indigenous human capacity on the ground in Puerto Rico;
  • place generators and other equipment at the ready for the next disaster;
  • position pre-tested networking kits rather than troubleshooting during the disaster;
  • use cloud-based technologies to establish wireless connections. Cloud-based technologies like Cisco Meraki also enable network engineers to continue to manage and monitor connectivity and traffic issues—even from afar.
  • use solar-based energy sources rather than diesel (e.g., with generators).

Common goals, no fiefdoms

Shakra noted that even though volunteers hailed from major companies like Google, Facebook, Cisco and others, there was common purpose and synergy that blocked fiefdoms and infighting. “Yes, you hardly sleep, and yes, there is a lot of pressure, and there are a lot of physical demands. But it was effortless in the sense of the cohesiveness, the synergy of how everyone came together. It made it effortless because everyone wanted to help.”

Riutort spoke with a quiet gratitude as he described the importance of that goodwill and desire to help. NetHope and other groups arrived at a critical time and restored faith when the region needed it, he said.

“It was the first time I had help when I didn’t ask for it,” Riutort said. “It was a one-of-a-kind experience.”

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Lauren Horwitz

Lauren Horwitz is the managing editor of Cisco.com, where she covers the IT infrastructure market and develops content strategy. Previously, Horwitz was a senior executive editor in the Business Applications and Architecture group at TechTarget;, a senior editor at Cutter Consortium, an IT research firm; and an editor at the American Prospect, a political journal. She has received awards from American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), a min Best of the Web award and the Kimmerling Prize for best graduate paper for her editing work on the journal article "The Fluid Jurisprudence of Israel's Emergency Powers.”