Restoring Hope. Helping Reconnect Puerto Rico
Cisco Latin America
Managing Director, Central America, Northern South America and Caribbean (CANSAC)
When Hurricane Maria passed over Puerto Rico late last year, the powerful Category 5 storm left tragedy and disaster across the island. International media reported more than 540 deaths linked to the hurricane. The storm generated floods and destroyed the entire electrical network and communications of the Caribbean island, home to roughly three and a half million people. Against this background of devastation, Cisco could not sit idly by. We were compelled to provide support to those affected.
Maria’s heavy rainfall accompanied by sustained winds of 64 MPH and gusts of up to 190 MPH, wiped out infrastructure. Without the infrastructure, there was no way for those living in Puerto Rico to communicate with their relatives, friends and acquaintances to let them know they had survived. Telephone lines were down. There was no internet access. Residents were without electricity or drinking water. Hospitals and public services could not provide the essential services on which communities depend. In short, there was no way to request help. It was not even clear how to begin the recovery process. Only a scant few governmental and non-governmental organizations offered their help to provide shelter, food, medicines, personal hygiene products and other basic needs. Cisco stepped in.
How did we do it? Working in conjunction with government and non-profit organizations such as NetHope, we were able to install public wi-fi connection points for the population and provide support to restore communications on the island. We also assisted with the placement of technological equipment in emergency operations centers, hospitals and clinics. In addition, we granted connectivity to NGOs such as Mercy Corps, Save the Children, International Medical Corps, Oxfam and Feeding America.
Cisco’s collaboration was essential for recovering connection in some of the most highly impacted locations. Thanks to our efforts in the small town of Espino, for example, a pharmacy was able to continue providing residents in the area with the treatments for their illnesses, such as thyroid, diabetes and others. The men, women and children who came to the pharmacy expressed relief at having access to the medicines they needed while also being finally able to connect with relatives via wi-fi to inform them they were well and had survived the disaster. Witnessing the outpouring of emotions and displays of affection filled us with satisfaction. In restoring communication capabilities, we were helping to provide lifelines to hope.
Our methodology was to extend wi-fi networks to provide connectivity between the towers that were still standing but not receiving a signal. We then distributed downward to deliver service to the end users. To achieve this, volunteer employees from Cisco’s Disaster Incident Response Team (DIRT) traveled from places like California and Iceland to Puerto Rico to put their IT experience to work. They have been supporting connectivity efforts since September 2017. Members of our Tactical Operation Team (TacOps) deployed also on the island to support our local team.
We have the greatest admiration for our employees in Puerto Rico. During one of the most difficult moments of their history, and while still struggling to overcome adversity and confront their own personal difficulties, these employees stepped up and did what was necessary. They collaborated with the NetHope and TacOps teams while they facilitated local contacts. In the weeks immediately following the Hurricane, Cisco employees in Puerto Rico transformed the office into a warm, welcoming refuge for workers and family members. The conference rooms became home for many, and they attained the security, water and electricity that they so needed during this complicated time.
"The talented teams from TacOps and Cisco Meraki solutions have been great partners in helping us restore connectivity throughout Puerto Rico," said Frank Schott, vice president of global programs at NetHope, an organization that brings together more than 50 international NGOs. NetHope provides information technology solutions to the developing world, especially in times of crisis.
Puerto Rico’s government also recognized the collaboration Cisco has been able to provide. "It was the first time in the history of our territory that 100 percent of communications were lost,” commented Luis Arocho, chief information officer (CIO) for the Government of Puerto Rico. “We are grateful for the support provided by the excellent Cisco and NetHope teams. Their help was incredible and essential for the island’s post-hurricane recovery."
Cisco helped establish NetHope in 2001 in partnership with Save the Children, and has since supported the organization with teams, employees and experience. We could not sit passively by simply observing the tragedy that hit Puerto Rico. We had to act. Moreover, we offer words of encouragement for all the inhabitants of the island: the reconstruction period following Hurricane Maria will take years and we will be there.