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Disconnected during disaster: How a company focused on space flight is providing a critical connection on the ground during times of crisis

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Damage from Mayfield, Kentucky and surrounding area. Photo courtesy: Austin Marshall, Material Flow Engineer II, Starlink

Bowling Green, Kentucky (March 3, 2022) – The need to access information becomes, perhaps, most important when disaster strikes. That was never more evident than in the days following December 10, 2021.

According to the National Weather Service (NWS), 61 tornadoes tore a deadly and destructive path across eight states. NWS called the intensity of these thunderstorms and tornadoes “remarkable” because they happened in autumn, rather than spring or summer when they are most expected.

Among those who found themselves in the path of those devastating storm were members of the Connected Nation (CN) team — including the national nonprofit’s CFO Bernie Bogle. She shares her experience below.

A firsthand account

I live in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and as you may know, in December, our community and state were ravaged by a series of tornados. Some areas of my hometown are still devastated by the damage done by those storms.

There are neighborhoods where home after home was decimated, with the occasional lucky one being missed — as if the twisters hopscotched through the town.

My immediate family was extremely fortunate in that the storm missed us almost completely. My sister had no damage at her house, but just a mile down the road, a gas station was ripped to shreds leaving gas pumps bent sideways. My sister-in-law’s home had some roof and tree damage, while down her street and on the next street over, many homes were destroyed. She was without power for a few weeks.

Still, we were lucky. All of our loved ones were safe, with only minor inconveniences. But this scary experience brought another issue to light — the need for internet connectivity during natural disasters or emergencies.

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Before and after the storms. Photo courtesy: Austin Marshall, Material Flow Engineer II, Starlink

No access, no information

The tornados touched down in the middle of the night on a Friday. Our power flickered, then came back on almost immediately. Our internet and cable went out and stayed out all weekend. They weren’t restored until Monday morning. As a result, we had limited to no access to news. The only way we could learn what was happening was from those in other communities who could occasionally call or text us with the limited cell coverage we had.

It’s hard to explain if you haven’t experienced it, but the fact that we couldn’t find out much about the extent of the damage was so disconcerting. We knew that emergency personnel and utility crews were already working around the clock to meet the most pressing needs of the community. But, because we were physically unscathed, we felt a bit isolated — emergency crews were already taxed, meaning we were likely on our own if an emergency situation arose.

Connected Nation has several employees in Bowling Green and the surrounding area. As the Chief Financial Officer, I felt a responsibility to check on my work family. So, Saturday morning, myself and others on the leadership team began checking on Connected Nation’s staff to make sure they and their families were all safe; thankfully, everyone was fine, albeit rattled.

One the home front, two of our children are in community college and still live with us. So, many times, we would go to our phones to look something up online or simply to try to get news about what was happening outside our home — but our efforts were met with mostly radio silence.

It was a disturbing feeling to be so disconnected. To distract myself, I did what I typically do that time of year — I finished making Christmas cookies. Before the storm, I had made multiple batches of cookies. The next day, I iced them in bright green, red, blue, or yellow. This was how I coped with feelings of uncertainty. (By the way, some of those Christmas cookies found their way to utility workers, who spent long hours working to restore power to our town.)

The old adage is true — you don’t know what you’ve got until it gone. That weekend, my family felt the loss of our connectivity. The tornados had only a small impact on my family when compared to others, but it was eye-opening to see just how much we all need and rely on the internet every single day. Connectivity matters.

As you might imagine, this severed connectivity was not only an inconvenience for those of us still with homes, but it was critical to the life-saving rescue and recovery efforts that followed for weeks and months. Restoring this critical link was no easy task, as traditional infrastructure was mauled beyond repair, and in some cases, beyond recognition.

Help from above

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Setting up equipment to connect the community to the internet. Photo courtesy: Austin Marshall, Material Flow Engineer II, Starlink

After learning of the devastation, loss of life and the heroism of our first responders, our friends from SpaceX in Washington, D.C., whom CN has had the pleasure of working alongside in policy matters for several years, called to offer their thoughts and prayers, but also their assistance in a most unexpected way: SpaceX operates a new broadband technology that relies on low-Earth orbiting (LEO) satellites to establish high-speed internet access wirelessly. 

Starlink is the name of this new product from the labs of Elon Musk, and while it is a great entrant to any established broadband market, it is most applicable in providing service where current networks don’t exist — in the remote or rural corners of our country. Or say, in storm-ravaged western Kentucky where literally everything was destroyed.

In a matter of 24 hours, we watched in awe and gratitude as a team of their engineers sprang into action and deployed from as far away as the pacific northwest to bring and install more than 20 Starlink stations, established uplink to their satellites, and restored resilient and high-speed connections (in some cases over 100 Mbps!) to towns all over our part of the state.

These Starlink kits provided secure connections, not only for the private use of Kentucky emergency response efforts, but some were also provisioned for public Wi-Fi access so that families and businesses could attempt reconnection with customers and loved ones.

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In one instance, a neighboring Police Chief had been working without a computer network and had no ability to write police reports. His office could only take dispatch calls through a computer with a cell tower link before SpaceX arrived.

Did I mention that SpaceX did this gratis? Relationships matter. Especially in a crisis.

My thoughts and prayers continue go out to those who lost loved ones and property during the December storms.  We still flinch in Bowling Green when the wind blows hard, but we are a community whose members have been there for each other and will continue to help one another brave any storm.

About the author (pictured left): Bernie Bogle is the CFO of Connected Nation. She is a CPA and a Chartered Global Management Accountant, oversees finances of Connected Nation, ensures compliance on all grants and resource allocations, and is experienced in private, government, and nonprofit settings.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  The same company that helped Kentucky in December provided a similar fix over the weekend in Ukraine to ensure that connectivity remained in the region. This was reported yesterday by national media including in this story from CNN. As we all have seen, much of the on-the-ground information coming from that area of the world has been from residents simply accessing the internet and social media.

The images below include damage in and around Bowling Green; the collection of items for those affected by the storms; and Starlink workers setting up equipment to connect the community to internet access. Photos courtesy: Austin Marshall, Material Flow Engineer II, Starlink

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