Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), who is the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate the communication failures and restoration efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria.
According to the FCC, 95 percent of the cell sites in Puerto Rico were out the day after the hurricane, and 36 percent were still out of service two months later. This failure in communications “may have even caused additional deaths in Puerto Rico,” Pallone wrote in his request to the GAO.
Pallone pointed out that knowing what caused the problems in telecommunications in Puerto Rico and the USVI after Hurricane Maria could help prevent similar problems in the future after similar disasters. “To prevent similar failures in the future,” he wrote “it is critical that we understand what happened during the hurricane and its aftermath, and what could be improved.”
It took 12 days for first responders to Hurricane Maria to establish contact with all 78 of Puerto Rico’s municipalities. Thousands of containers of emergency supplies were stuck at the port because deliveries could not be coordinated. Ham radio hobbyists stepped up to help, but volunteers and emergency responders alike were frustrated by communication problems exacerbated by the lack of electricity.
From Google to grant-funded groups of students, many organizations tried to help out with innovative solutions, but it was months before telecommunications were fully restored across the Island. Pallone referenced a May 2019 report created by FreePress.net which called out the FCC for specific failures in responding to the crisis.
Pallone asked the FCC a number of specific questions. He asked for a general investigation and evaluation of the FCC’s response to Puerto Rico’s and the USVI’s communication issues after the hurricane. He also asked whether the response to the territories was different in any way from the usual response to States.
Pallone also asked about the Disaster Information Reporting System, or DIRS, a voluntary web-based reporting system overseen by FEMA and the FCC. Though DIRS is intended to support broadcasters and streamline the process of restoring communications, its implementation after Hurricane Maria was challenging, since both electricity and cell phone stations were knocked out by the storm. Pallone asked whether the DIRS ended up being helpful, and how it could be made more helpful in future.
He also asked for specific information about how the FCC intends to use and to track the use of its latest funding allocated to the territories to improve their communications infrastructure. Roughly $950 million was approved for this effort, with the goal of bringing reliable broadband internet access to every resident of Puerto Rico and the USVI.