Could a Faster Communications Recovery in Puerto Rico Save Lives?

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Today, September 20th, 2018, marks the one-year anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Maria on the American island of Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on the island as it devastated homes and infrastructure, and caused nearly 3,000 deaths.

The original death toll of Puertoriqueños was 64 victims according to the U.S. government. However, a recent study by The George Washington University finds that the death toll through February 2018 was actually approximately 2,975 victims.The study further explains how the failure of Puerto Rico’s communications infrastructure helped exacerbate the death undercount of Hurricane Maria.

Could the failure of the island’s communications infrastructure be to blame for the death undercount?

While the study also credits the island’s lack of emergency protocols as another source of blame for the undercount, it highlights the fact that without communication channels to aid the death certification process across the island, many of the recorded deaths were recorded via word of mouth. This is supported by data from the Federal Communications Commission, which shows that more than 77 percent of cell sites on the island were still down nearly a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall. It’s unclear, even one year later, exactly how much of the island’s copper network (landline) was damaged.

And yet, aside from Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel’s advocacy for the island (though, fierce), the FCC has done very little to aid or draw awareness to the slow recovery in Puerto Rico -- particularly for the disconnected reality that still exists for many Puertoriqueños. Instead, it seems like FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is ignoring the FCC’s continued role in standing up Puerto Rico’s communications at all.

In its 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season Impact on Communications Report, released in August 2018, the Commission highlighted Chairman Pai’s visit to Puerto Rico, the “repurposed funds” sent to the island, and regulator waivers that were granted as the bulk of  “the numerous actions” of aid the Commission has taken. In reality, the Commission has done much less for Puerto Rico post-hurricane Maria than past Commissions (both Republican-led and Democrat-led) have taken. Hurricane Katrina is the closest rank to Hurricane Maria as far as devastation caused, and yet the FCC took considerably more action to aid victims in the aftermath of Katrina, like offering free devices and calling minutes to victims both displaced and still in the disaster zone. After Hurricane Katrina the Commission also immediately assembled an independent panel, and directed the panel to evaluate, in depth, the impact Hurricane Katrina had on the telecommunications and media infrastructure -- including public safety, the sufficiency of recovery efforts by the FCC in regards to communications infrastructure, and to make recommendations for the Commission’s future disaster recovery effort improvements. The report was thorough and was released nine months after Katrina made landfall in the Gulf region. These are all things the current FCC has not evaluated. Instead, the Commission released a report that bundled all 2017 Atlantic hurricanes (despite the fact that Hurricane Maria caused significantly more damage than the others) nearly an entire year later.

It’s important to note that though Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, Puertoriqueños are American citizens and are completely under the jurisdiction of the FCC. It’s also important to note that the devastation from Hurricane Maria, even one year later, is unprecedented. Just as other Americans have received during disaster recovery, the Commission and other government entities owe the people of Puerto Rico real aid, data collection, and recovery efforts that match the unprecedented levels of devastation during this critical time in the island’s history.

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