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What's really slowing the restoration of Puerto Rico's communications?

The government was unable to prepare communications networks in Puerto Rico for Hurricane Maria in the same way it did for other recent storms that hit the country’s mainland, said Rear Adm. Ronald Hewitt, the director of the Office of Emergency Communications for the Department of Homeland Security.

Testifying at a recent hearing on assessing first-responder communications, Hewitt told a House Homeland Security committee's Emergency Preparedness Response, and Communications Subcommittee that prior to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma making landfall, agencies were able to preposition equipment, which allowed them resurrect the communications infrastructure relatively quickly after the storm.

That just wasn’t possible for Maria, which devastated many parts of the Puerto Rico, including its communications. “It was impossible to preposition [equipment] because every island got wiped out.” he said.

Additionally, the strong winds of the Category 5 storm took a major toll on the island.

“Most towers can take up to a Level 3 hurricane,” he said. “With a Level 5, just about every tower, if it wasn’t knocked down, the microwave links that are the backhauls were misaligned, so we’re totally having to rebuild Puerto Rico.”

The geographic reality of the American territory’s location has made recovery hard as well. Cell carriers are trying to get equipment to the island, which requires a boat or plane, and once there the road conditions make travel inland difficult as well.

A recent report from the Federal Communications Commission on the state of cellular service in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands shows there is still much work to do before service is back to normal. Eighty-one percent of cell sites in Puerto Rico are without service, and 60 percent of sites in the U.S. Virgin Islands are also without service.

When asked by subcommittee Chairman Dan Donovan (R-N.Y.) whether there were any issues with first responder communications during these storms, Hewitt said he's still waiting for a full after-action report with those details. But anecdotal evidence, he added, showed that some first responders were unable to respond to calls, not due to communication issues, but because of the severity of the storm.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.

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