The morning after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, Sofia Maldonado tried to call her parents, who were still on the island. “You call them, call them, and no answer,” she says. She switched to texts. Still nothing. “Not having communications with your parents or your friends or anyone, it’s very hard because you don’t know how they’re doing.”
Maldonado, an artist based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was traveling when the hurricane hit. She watched the destruction unfold on television from her friend’s apartment in New York. The Category 4 storm splintered wooden homes, destroyed most of the power lines, and killed dozens of people. Satellite photos show only darkness where there was once a web of lights. “It’s as if Puerto Rico doesn’t exist,” Maldonado says.
Now, more than a week later, filthy, stagnant floodwaters still blanket the streets. The island remains almost entirely without electricity, and the communications infrastructure was also badly damaged, leaving Puerto Rico eerily cut off from the rest of the world. The widespread power outage knocked out almost all cable service and telephone lines, all of the island’s cellphone towers are still out of service.Communication after a disaster of this scale isn’t just a matter of convenience; it’s life and death. With temperatures climbing over 90 degrees, no refrigeration for food or medication, and no water, more people will die, especially those who are older, injured, sick, differently abled, or alone — especially if they have no way to call for help.
Local amateur (or ham) radio operators whose antennas survived the storm have pitched in as well, says Tom Gallagher, CEO of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national association of radio amateurs. Hams can talk, send data or text, or use Morse code to communicate with each other on specific radio frequency bands. With the power out, the police and emergency radio systems went down. “So now the police are riding with ham radio operators with VHF handheld units — handy talkies,” Gallagher says. Others are working with Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority to dispatch trucks for repairs and fuel deliveries.
More amateur radio operators have recently arrived as well. Recruited by the American Red Cross, 20 ham operators will help add the names of hurricane survivors to its Safe and Well website, which friends and families can search for news about loved ones. Three radio operators are continuing on to the US Virgin Islands, which were also decimated by this season’s back-to-back hurricanes. “It is incredibly gratifying to see that we can be of service to other Americans far away,” Gallagher says. “We were flattered that the Red Cross called us, for the first time. We’re proud of the hams that stepped up and volunteered.”
Devices communicating over mesh networks could be another amateur fix, but they face a few obstacles. Mesh networks usually require Wi-Fi routers, which need power — something Puerto Rico doesn’t have right now. They’re also far more limited in scope than traditional internet and phone service. Without a connection to the larger internet, mesh networks would only reach as far as the nearest router’s signal, making it hard to coordinate large-scale services. Walkie talkies are sparing a lot in crisis during these tough times.
Until the telecommunications providers that serve Puerto Rico repair and restore power to the damaged cell towers, people who need to call for help, or who want to check in with friends and family are still largely out of luck.