|That Rectangle Under The Category 5 Hurricane Is Puerto Rico|
As long time Red Cross volunteers, Glen and I help establish communications with radio and VSAT satellite communications to support relief efforts. For Hurricane Maria, we deployed VSATs to establish WiFi Internet service so that affected Puerto Ricans could contact their loved ones via Skype, text and email as part of a valuable and much needed Red Cross Reunification Program.
|Finding Look Angle to the Satellite Using A Theodolite|
We Named This VSAT Jerry
We fired up our generators in the town plaza, alerting the dazed looking townspeople that something was going on. Word spread fast that the Red Cross was setting up communications that would enable calls to their families outside Puerto Rico. "Bring your phones and charge them, " we announced in Spanish. People gathered and plugged their phones into our charging stations while our team got the VSAT and WiFi up and running. No pressure here folks, just hundreds of traumatized people waiting to call their loved ones for the first time since Hurricane Maria.
Even though cell service and electricity was down, our satellite connection and internet WiFi allows users to text, send email and call.
|Elisandro, Javier, Craig and Me Setting Up VSAT|
With Many American Red Cross Volunteers Still Hard At Work
On Hurricanes Harvey and Irma We Welcomed the Support Of
Three Spanish and One Finnish Red Cross Delegates
|Our Staff Shelter - The Basement of a Church|
Sleeping With 70 New Friends
A Generator Gave Us Light
Glen and I had a family trip planned when we heard from David Schindler, a fellow Red Cross IT-Telecom volunteer and friend. We had been watching the intensity and size of Hurricane Maria and knew that Puerto Rico would be slammed in a swath of destruction. David had just worked Hurricane Harvey for three weeks and was now going to assist with Hurricane Maria. Glen and I decided that if David could work back-to-back disasters, we could shift the dates of our personal travel. We deployed to Puerto Rico the day after hurricane Maria went through. The airport and harbors were closed to commercial traffic, but a FEMA chartered plane put Red Cross disaster response people among the first on the ground. It was a strange feeling to land at an airport where the lights are off and to unload your own cases of satellite communication equipment.
|Eli and Enrique - Spanish Red Cross Friends|
Glen and I live in Arizona and as they say, dry heat is quite different. Hot, humid places are tough when there is no electricity for air conditioning or fans, or lights for that matter. Red Cross volunteer staff slept in the basement of a church and there was enough fuel to run a generator at night to circulate and cool the air. But we were all so busy our cots felt great at night - we were that tired. Besides, how could any of us complain when the need and losses of the Puerto Rican people were so extreme.
|Loading and Unloading Equipment|
|Logistics Are A Challenge With No Comms or Electricity|
But we were only in the shelters for sleeping, water and food resupply. Our VSAT team departed early in the morning in a convoy of 3-4 cars, connected by portable radios for safety. Once our VSAT was up and running we could talk to the townspeople. Our Reunification team circulated among the crowd, showing them how to log onto our Wi-Fi system and make Voice Over Internet phone calls, text and email their loved ones. For anyone without a working phone, we provided Red Cross phones with prepaid Skype accounts so that no one was left out.
|Glen - VSAT Whisperer - Fixing Equipment Problems|
Getting our team out to remote areas was a challenge. I grew very fond of the four wheel truck which carried our team of two and all the communication equipment. A couple times I held my breath that we could ford the standing water in the street and we always made it. The first weeks after the storm were marked by detours around felled trees in the road and localized flooding from near daily rain storms. Thankfully, our VSATs were able to power through the rain to reach the satellite in even the hardest downpours. The Red Cross was one of the first responders and at times we combined our WiFi service with food distribution and Health Services visits. The tears and outpouring of grief and sadness from the townspeople describing their losses and uncertainty about their future often set me and others crying. It was impossible to not be moved by what they had endured. Our internet based phone calls were the first contact these folks had with their loved ones after the hurricane. Imagine the frustration and fear of being separated from your family after a natural disaster with no way to contact them or to know their fate. It turned out to be a greater psychological support than I ever anticipated. Something else happened during those VSAT missions that I never anticipated. The town plazas once again became a base for the community to gather. A place where people once again felt part of their families and connected to the world.
|Crowds Talking, Texting and Emailing|
|We only had enough VSATs for two teams.|
Glen and I Were On Team 1 and 2
I was on Team 1!
This was one of our dry, sunny days.
Hearing so many stories gave us an emotional connection with the people we served and spurred us to work into the night. VSAT operation is an outdoor job and we went about our jobs in rain ponchos and squished around in shoes filled with water. Even in heavy rain townspeople huddled under tarps and umbrellas close to our WiFi antenna in order to communicate with loved ones. As we drove through the island providing communications we discovered the humanity and generosity of people who have been through trying times together. In the field our Red Cross teams ate nutritional bars, except when people in the community kindly prepared rice and beans for us. Disasters make you realize that it does not matter how much money you have or what your social position is in the world. Catastrophe is a big equalizer and all we really have at such times are each other.
|Craig Mitchell - Finnish RC - Network Engineer Extraordinaire|
|VSATs R Us|
But it wasn’t all sadness and tears. Once people talked and connected with their families they seemed lighter and happier. I got to practice my Spanish as they told stories about their visits to the mainland USA and family members living there. In one small mountain town a twenty-something woman walked up with a smile, wearing a T-shirt that said, “I don’t need help, I need WiFi.” I’m not sure that woman’s neighbors agreed with her priorities, but our Red Cross VSAT Reunification Team was certainly the answer to her needs.
|Colin Chaperone - International Red Cross Field Officer|
|Enrique Bossa - Go Team One!!!|