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Puerto Rico is in trouble. The grid is down and its citizens are stuck in the dark ages. While there are some big companies rolling out various emergency response strategies the battle has been scattered, to say the least. And now responders are having their own troubles communicating and are having to order emergency supplies of communication methods.
Hurricanes Maria and Irma have thrown Puerto Rico into a world of darkness and have left 3.5 million people without power, supplies and a way to call for help.
The basic necessity for any emergency service to address a disaster is communication. Without it, teams cannot work together and departments cannot share information for an overall situational awareness. This also hinders relief efforts such as organising deliveries of emergency supplies and allocating medical teams.
To assist in coordinating their efforts, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has just ordered more than 300 satellite phones from Miami.
Unlike normal cell phones, which rely on towers, satellite phones rely on satellite communication for their signal, so there is always a connection. The setback is satellite minutes are very expensive (about $1.50/minute for a call).
USA Today reported that on a usual basis there were 10 satellite phones in Puerto Rico, but on any given day during the disaster response there are more than 2000, and that does not account for military phones.
The situation in Puerto Rico is getting so bad that some people living in the US are gathering their own supplies and flying to Puerto Rico to help their families. They are also taking stellite phones with them in their personel rescue missions.
Former Marine Mario Salazar spent $19,000 on a prepper’s supply of satellite phones and life-saving supplies and flew to San Juan to help his family.
He and his brother-in-law packed food, water, machetes, satellite phones, portable generators, water purifiers, solar chargers, torches and hundreds of batteries to help out their family who had been stranded and without contact.
Some parties have stepped up to the rescue and are providing some much-needed help such as Facebook who are using drones to provide wifi connectivity to Puerto Ricans and now Amazon, who have delivered a plane full of donated items.
A student organisation has also organised a crowdfunding campaign called the Cajun Relief Initiative to raise money for the purchase of supplies and satellite phone minutes (expensive rates) for medical personnel who are on the ground in Puerto Rico. You can find a link to the crowdfunding campaign below.
In a recent post on off-grid communication, we reviewed the goTenna Mesh smartphone device that can be used to set up an independent network that does not rely on service, signal or wifi to operate and runs on an encrypted mesh network.
There have been reports of people using these devices on phantom drones to emit a larger radius of a mesh network to make contact other people in the mesh network. Ideally, this would be great for an emergency service team to work together and would be a cheaper alternative to satellite phones, so long as there was a constant rechargeable source. This could be solved with small, portable solar panels.
Facebook is doing this in Puerto Rico with their own wifi emitting drones such as the one pictured below.
Last week Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced he was sending the Facebook Connectivity Team to work on getting temporary emergency communications set up for stranded Puerto Ricans.
This is being done with a tethered wifi drone that stays connected so that it can remain airborne for long periods and establish a wifi network for people to use. There is no sign as of yet about the range these drone towers will have or where they will be located.
This is just a small solution to a much bigger problem for Puerto Rico. We hope Puerto Rico can at least get some form of sustainable communication set up as soon as possible so that emergency services, citizens and medical staff can coordinate an effective relief effort and start reaching the people that need help.