By Carmen Scurato and Leo Fitzpatrick
When Hurricane Maria obliterated Puerto Rico’s communications infrastructure in the fall of 2017, the residents of Puerto Rico literally struggled to call for help. But with 95 percent of cell sites out of service and 911 out of commission, people were unable to learn the fates of families, friends and colleagues on the islands, or connect with loved ones on the mainland or in the diaspora.
During this communications blackout, TV and radio stations were also down and both first responders and emergency managers struggled to stay connected too. It was one of the most comprehensive, expensive and long-lasting communications disruptions in modern U.S. history.
Last week, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Media and Broadband, chaired by Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D–New Mexico), held a hearing on “Building Resilient Networks.” During the hearing, Chairman Luján asserted that “[w]hat happened with Maria is just simply unacceptable.” He inquired into the Trump FCC’s response and how its response differed from the approach of previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican.
A public-interest advocate who testified agreed that “[t]he response to Maria was highly unusual,” and that “the FCC response was inadequate and disgraceful.” Other senators inquired about the need to analyze the threats the climate crisis poses to our communications infrastructure, noting that it’s crucial to identify legislative and regulatory mandates that can promote resilient communications networks.
U.S. report finds abstract emergency response guidelines for the FCC could have caused confusion and delays after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, destroying 96% of telecommunication cell sites: https://t.co/hbpX20wWTE
— Dánica Coto (@danicacoto) June 1, 2021
One thing is certain: What happened in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria should never happen again.
The need to act now is matched with an opportunity as Congress negotiates a massive investment in the country’s aging and climate crisis-vulnerable infrastructure. Lawmakers must ensure that communications networks, like high-speed internet, are treated as essential infrastructure nationwide, and that Puerto Rico’s communications infrastructure is fully restored and improved.
The Senate hearing has set Congress up to invest in resilient communications infrastructure, and the FCC should lead the way to regulate those vital networks properly.
Searching for accountability after Hurricane Maria
After Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, the usual antipathy, racism and apathy that defines media coverage of the islands was replaced with an eerie silence, unnerving in an era of constant access to real-time information. Free Press looked to the FCC, expecting the agency to ask hard questions about the causes of the prolonged communications outages, and to ensure that this kind of crisis would never happen again.
The FCC had launched investigations after other disasters like Hurricane Katrina led to widespread communications outages, and came away with recommendations. Yet the Trump FCC didn’t conduct a comprehensive investigation after Hurricane Maria. Instead, the agency convened a secretive task force and issued a sparse report with meek recommendations that encompassed the entire 2017 hurricane season. In response, Free Press and allies urged the FCC to be more transparent, directly engage with Puerto Ricans on the islands, make agency updates about the outages available in Spanish, and create an independent commission that would investigate the FCC’s response.
Report calls on FCC to probe storm aftermath in Puerto Rico (from @AP) https://t.co/uvdii5dWzv
— Dánica Coto (@danicacoto) May 14, 2019
Our 2019 report noted that, even two years after the storm, little was known about the FCC’s response and the systemic failures that led to the communications blackout in Puerto Rico. That report served, in part, as the impetus for Congress to request that the Government Accountability Office conduct an investigation and uncover more information about what went wrong.
The GAO’s recently released report confirmed much of what we already knew: that the Trump FCC’s disaster response was not transparent and the agency’s role was not clearly defined. The FCC failed to engage with Puerto Ricans most impacted by the storm, and hid whatever efforts it may have made to contribute to recovery and rebuilding.
This GAO report is now part of a long struggle to learn the whole truth of the government’s response to this disaster. The disparate treatment of the people in Puerto Rico cannot be divorced from the islands’ colonial status and the role that racism played in delaying recovery efforts.
Building resilient communications infrastructure in Puerto Rico & beyond
Nearly four years later, it’s critical for the Biden FCC to do better. When she was an FCC commissioner, now-Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel called for the agency to devise a new playbook for responding to disasters and making our communications infrastructure more resilient.
FCC approves additional $950 million for broadband in Puerto Rico https://t.co/KkKAGazaax pic.twitter.com/xNOQlDjbD8
— Engadget (@engadget) September 26, 2019
Hurricane Maria underscored the integral role that communications infrastructure plays in surviving a disaster caused or exacerbated by the climate crisis, and how people fare during the recovery and rebuilding. For too long, proactive federal oversight has been absent, and instead we’ve had voluntary, industry-led disaster response measures that have repeatedly failed–from the communications outages in Florida following Hurricane Michael, to disruptions and outages during the California wildfires, to the outages caused by below-freezing temperatures in Texas earlier this year.
The status quo will not eventually produce a different result. The country needs bold infrastructure legislation that includes thoughtful planning and funding for resilient communications networks. And it needs the new FCC leadership to write a new disaster-response playbook that protects the communication rights of communities most impacted by the climate crisis, including Black and Indigenous communities that continue to face disparate treatment in Puerto Rico, and everywhere else in this country.
Carmen Scurato is a senior policy counsel at Free Press Action, where Leo Fitzpatrick is a policy counsel.
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