How Access Impacted Puerto Rico Families Before and After Hurricane Maria
by Jessica Denson
Director of Communications, Connected Nation
Louisville, KY (September 10, 2019) – Ricky Santiago lives and works in Louisville, Kentucky, but he’s from Puerto Rico, and on September 16, 2017, he felt just how far away from his childhood home he really was.
“The night prior to the hurricane [Maria], we called our family and friends and we prayed and ensured them that we would be there for them no matter the situation. This felt different both on the island and in the states,” Santiago said. “I went through Hurricane George in 1998, when my parents and I still lived on the island; Hurricane Maria was something else entirely.”
That’s because it was a much different world nearly 20 years later.
“It was one of those moments when the advancements in communications and connectivity backfired due to the lack of a resilient and equitable infrastructure in Puerto Rico,” he said.
Santiago understands the importance of technology and how it can connect families and businesses. He’s the Innovation Program Manager for Louisville Metro Government. He’s in charge of the digital inclusion programs for the city and works daily to address digital inequity. But it wasn’t until that September that he would experience firsthand the difficulty of being cut off from others.
“I remember waiting for days upon days to hear from my family and friends. We were worried about my grandma; since she was elderly she was particularly vulnerable,” he said. “I became this link between the island and the Boricuas (Puerto Ricans) living in Kentucky on how to get a hold of emergency services, but even I only got a busy dial tone. There was this crazy story that not even the municipalities had any connection and were relaying information via the radio stations.”
According to Federal Communications Commission data shortly after the hurricane hit, more than 95 percent of cell sites were knocked out of service in Puerto Rico. In addition, in nearly two-thirds of the island’s counties, cell sites were completely destroyed. The destruction Hurricane Maria caused cut off thousands of people from their families and, according to Puerto Rico officials, left nearly 3,000 people dead.
As Santiago and others waited for word, they began to leverage the internet and their access to technology in the states to help those back home.
“My Facebook timeline became a working document, archive and network of Puerto Ricans in the states tirelessly working to aid the island,” he said. “Our efforts began when someone reposted about a supply drive happening in Lorain, Ohio. Within 24 hours, using only social media and the internet, we had a truck, truck driver and a location to hold a supply drive for three days. When the truck left, it was carrying more than supplies, it was carrying our hopes and love for the island.”
Before and After the Storm
In the years and months before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Connected Nation (CN) had been on the ground talking with residents and businesses about their access to the internet and related technologies. The national nonprofit’s mission is to find innovative solutions to expand broadband (high-speed internet) to all people — no matter where they live.
“The internet represents a lifeline for so many Americans, giving them the opportunity to stay in touch with friends and family members during times of crisis like this; it’s important to make sure we know who is and isn’t connected. Gathering data and understanding the trends is one important part of that equation,” said Chris McGovern, Director of Research Development, CN. “Understanding the problem means we can then find solutions and look for ways to help more people and more businesses in Puerto Rico and other parts of the United States.”
The organization has been contracted by the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics since 2015 to research those trends in technology among residential and business users. This has put Connected Nation in a unique position to understand how the hurricane impacted technology on the island.
“We do our residential surveys and research every even year — so we’ve got a picture of how residents were using technology before the storm hit in 2016 versus after the storm in 2018,” McGovern said.
Home broadband adoption rates fell 11 percentage points from 55 percent to 44 percent. In addition, Connected Nation broke down the adoption rate by demographic. Some of the areas of study included households with children, adults with disabilities, and senior citizens, as well as rural households and households earning less than $15,000 annually.
“Home broadband adoption rates among households with children dropped by 12 percentage points, while adoption among low-income households decreased by 9 percentage points. Years later, many of these families are still struggling to put their lives back together, including finding a way to get back online.
The reasons cited for not having home broadband ranged from “the monthly cost is too expensive” (15 percent) to “broadband isn’t available in my area” (5 percent) to “I don’t know how to use a computer well enough to access the internet” (6 percent).
“What this tells us is that we need to look at ways to make broadband more accessible — from finding ways to lower the cost to actually showing families and individuals how to use it,” said Chris Pedersen, VP of Development and Planning, CN. “It’s why we talk about ‘access, adoption, and use’ in relation to our mission. We must not only help people get high-speed internet but help them leverage it, because it can impact everything from their education to their pocketbook. It can ease isolation for seniors and help those dealing with physical challenges interact with their doctors more often. The benefits are endless and can improve the quality of life for everyone.”
The number of adults with home broadband dropped 348,600 between 2016 (before the hurricane) and 2018 (after the hurricane). In that same time period, mobile use of broadband has gone up five percentage points, from 67 percent to 72 percent.
Santiago and his family experienced the worry of being disconnected — and the profound relief the moment that connection was finally restored.
“First, I heard reports from one of my cousins that my grandma was OK because a neighbor had a landline that was operational. I kept sending messages to my family and friends, in the hopes that they would get connectivity somehow,” he said. “I used to run out of meetings when seeing a 787 area code on my phone, even if I didn’t know who it was, someone was trying to reach a family member in the U.S. and I couldn’t afford to lose that call.”
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