By Carmen Scurato and Leo Fitzpatrick
It’s been three years since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico but there’s still so much to uncover about the federal government’s failed recovery efforts. And the need for answers is just as pressing as ever, as both presidential campaigns revealed plans for Puerto Rico’s future that neglect to consider one of the most egregious failures afflicting the islands: the lack of a just and resilient communications system.
In recent days, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general released its investigation into FEMA’s efforts to supply survivors with needed commodities after the storms hit. The report found that “most of the municipalities were either without needed commodities, guidance, or communication,” and “[t]hese shortcomings led to delays in the receipt of life saving commodities.”
None of this is surprising.
Free Press has long drawn attention to the failure of the government and communications providers to reveal what went wrong with the communications networks after the hurricanes, and how to keep this kind of breakdown from happening again. Reports have documented how the festering failure continues to impact people today, including families and kids who can’t take part in virtual school during the pandemic because networks weren’t rebuilt in a way that serves the needs of impacted communities.
For instance, Mayor Ernesto Irizarry Salvá of Utuado, Puerto Rico, shared that in his wife’s classroom of 22 students, only a dozen children have access to the internet. “[T]hose kids live in Caguana,” he said, “one of the neighborhoods with more access to the internet. These are American children that do not have access to anything in this pandemic.”
Puerto Rico’s current struggles to get online are the latest iteration in a long arc of colonial exploitation and neglect. When Hurricanes Irma and Maria slammed into Puerto Rico in 2017, they annihilated the island’s communications infrastructure. In their wake, 95.6% of cell towers were out of service the day after, and only a single AM radio station survived the initial onslaught to broadcast vital emergency information.
The loss of communications had tragic and deadly consequences. At least 3,000 people died, making Hurricane Maria one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history. Puerto Ricans couldn’t call for help or access lifesaving information, and first responders struggled to gain the situational awareness needed to allocate limited resources. That very likely contributed, whether directly or indirectly, to the historic death toll.
Nazario Lugo, president of Puerto Rico’s Association of Emergency Managers, said “the biggest crisis after Maria was communication… that unleashed an endless number of problems.”
In the weeks and months that followed, restoration of communications lagged and so too did the public’s ability to learn what happened and hold accountable those who were responsible. Connectivity was so bad that some residents who were desperate to learn the fates of loved ones or put out the call for urgent material needs reported standing outside of airports in the hopes of catching a momentary Wi-Fi signal from planes passing overhead.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plays two important roles around a major emergency. First, during a disaster it collects outage information and shares it with relevant emergency-management agencies, including FEMA. Second, it can use its expertise after a disaster to assess how networks fared and recommend policies or regulations to mitigate issues in the future. For instance, after Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, which each caused significant outages, the agency led efforts to identify vulnerabilities and crafted policies to shore them up.
Yet despite Free Press’ repeated requests for the FCC to convene an independent panel to further investigate the outages after Irma and Maria, determine what went wrong and pinpoint how to fix it —as the agency had done after other major outages— the FCC didn’t answer the call. Rather than initiating an independent audit, it merely issued a 36-page write-up, minus robust policy recommendations, for the entire 2017 hurricane season. But there’s no way to address the communications breakdown without a full accounting of what happened and what caused it. And this obfuscation is exactly what many people in power continue to hide behind.
To fill this information void, Congress stepped in to help find answers. Last October —prompted by our in-depth report— Chairman Frank Pallone (D–New Jersey) of the House Energy & Commerce Committee ordered the Government Accountability Office to examine the telecommunications failures in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and analyze the slow pace of restoration. He declared that the FCC’s response “continues to raise serious questions about the state of our communications infrastructure.”
We still await the results of this investigation, which may shed light on questions that have persisted since that fateful September in 2017—questions the tragically incurious Trump FCC has ignored.
In February, Chairman Pallone introduced the RESILIENT Networks Act, a bill that codifies some of the voluntary, industry-led standards on how wireless carriers coordinate in a disaster. And Rep. Doris Matsui’s (D–California) Emergency Reporting Act —a bill that passed the House the day after the three-year anniversary of Maria’s landfall— would ensure that affected communities can tell their own stories about the impact of major disasters and require the FCC to incorporate people’s needs and experiences into its analyses.
These are good first steps. But whoever we find in the White House next year must correct and bend the arc of history toward justice, three years —and counting— after Hurricanes Maria and Irma.
Carmen Scurato is a senior policy counsel and Leo Fitzpatrick is a policy counsel for the digital rights group Free Press Action.