hurricane damage (NASA)

Hurricane response lessons from ground zero

Both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have spent years conducting disaster recovery drills, but nothing prepared the U.S. territories for the devastation that came from Hurricanes Irma and Maria

“We were hit by Irma and Maria and we only lost five people,” Tony Riddick, the Virgin Island's CIO and director of the Bureau of Information Technology, said in an April 24 presentation at the National Association of State CIOs midyear conference.  “I never saw so much destruction, with roofs torn off house and telephone poles down.  It took us months to cover.”

While the U.S. Virgin Islands had disaster recovery and backup plans, they didn’t help protect the government's data because it was all stored in the same location.  Riddick recommended backing up data in three locations and making sure citizens have an “instance of their own data” for restoration purposes.

The Virgin Islands lost all forms of communications as a result of the hurricanes, but it was able to restore 911 communications relatively quickly. Temporary cell towers were installed and devices were added so the towers were able to become operational.

The islands are also looking into moving its infrastructure underground, but Riddick said it would cost $330 million to run fiber and telephone lines underground.

In Puerto Rico, 80 percent of power has been restored to the island today, but only 20 percent of the population has reliable access to electricity.

In the aftermath of the hurricanes, Puerto Rico CIO Luis Arocho said the streets were unsafe, relief organizations were trying to fly supplies to the island, and the banking industry needed help because too many people were trying to withdraw money from their accounts.

“The CIO had to become the chief technology officer for the entire island,” Arocho said.  “We were dealing with money issues and plane logistics.”

There were plenty of other challenges as well. Some officials did not know how to use the disaster relief equipment.  Staff needed an instruction sheet to operate the satellite phones, which could only be used as a one-way communication device.

Cells on wheels could be deployed to restore connectivity, but service providers had trouble getting the mobile transmission equipment to the island.  And before Project Loon could provide internet connectivity via fleet of balloons, Alphabet X, formerly known as the Google X experimental unit,  had to get approval to fly over non-U.S. islands in the region.

Arocho said Puerto Rico is working closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security to develop a resiliency plan for the future, and the island is also asking that assets deployed to the island be kept there for future disasters.

During recovery, the Puerto Rican government decided to put information on critical infrastructure into a geospatial database and asked cellphone carriers for open roaming. Officials wanted to be able to use a map-based solution from their mobile devices regardless of which vendors were supplying service.

“It sounded easy [to deploy open roaming], but it was not and required a lot of configuration and planning,” Arocho said. “You need to write this kind of thing into your disaster recovery plan.”


About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for GCN, covering cloud, cybersecurity and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Before joining GCN, Friedman was a reporter for Gambling Compliance, where she covered state issues related to casinos, lotteries and fantasy sports. She has also written for Communications Daily and Washington Internet Daily on state telecom and cloud computing. Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

Click here for previous articles by Friedman.

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