By Lauren Woodman, CEO
As I help pack up the car and load my family up for the long Thanksgiving weekend, I am more reflective than usual about the themes this holiday evokes. What am I grateful for? And why am I hopeful about the future, even though our world seems more volatile and challenging than ever?
For one thing, I am profoundly thankful for the NetHope community. Our member organizations are all tirelessly committed to advancing their missions related to humanitarian aid, development, and conservation – and they do it despite resource constraints, and dangerous or difficult situations.
I saw this firsthand during my visit to Puerto Rico over the weekend. While I hear how our work to restore connectivity is aiding the people of Puerto Rico from the NetHope team and our members, I wanted to see for myself the work we’ve done in the two months since Hurricane Maria. I was joined by a group of executives from Cisco, who have worked alongside NetHope in this response and many, many others over the years.
I had the opportunity to talk with Nery Rivera, Director of Emergency Services in Corozal, Puerto Rico. The eye of Hurricane Maria passed directly over her town, about an hour outside of San Juan. Corozal is in a hilly area, and the roads were obstructed. Electricity is still out, and clean water remains a daily struggle for most of her 37,000 constituents. But today, she has Wi-Fi.
NetHope, Cisco, and Ericsson Response worked together to connect her offices and the town plaza, where citizens gather to get access to critical information, help one another, and celebrate the strength of their community. In helping her community rebuild, she said, connectivity had been the most important, as she could now coordinate with other municipalities, the Commonwealth Government, FEMA, and others.
The trappings of the holiday season are evident everywhere in Puerto Rico, and it’s an important time for families to gather and celebrate together. Puerto Ricans have an indomitable spirit, and every single person I spoke to was determined to rebuild stronger than ever. Everywhere, I heard: “Se Levante!” or, “Puerto Rico Rises!” But life is nowhere near back to normal. Two months after the storm, 52 percent of Puerto Ricans still lack power. The roads that bring families together physically are, in many cases, still impassable.
There is good news, as well: To date, NetHope has installed 48 sites with free Wi-Fi connectivity, with plans to bring 11 additional sites online over the coming days. Right now, we’re installing about one new site per day. Sixty percent of cell towers are back in service, and 36 counties now have more than 50 percent of their towers up and running. Progress is slow, but it is happening. And NetHope will stay as long as there is work to be done.
For NetHope to be able to make an impact in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, we must not only help bring vital communications channels back online, but work to build local capacity, as well. Thus far, we have hired five residents to manage our warehouse, assist with logistics and installations, and support installation sites. It’s really a win-win for NetHope: We are incredibly thankful to have these hard-working and industrious people working with us, and they are, in turn, grateful to be a part of bringing connectivity back to their friends and neighbors.
None of this would be possible without our partners and donors, particularly Facebook, Cisco, Google, Microsoft, The Patterson Foundation and Blackbaud for their generous support of NetHope’s response and Crisis Informatics work. I would also like to thank the Government of Puerto Rico, Save the Children, Samaritan’s Purse, FEMA, Red 52, Mapbox, Eutelsat, Ericsson Response, and SAS Institute for their assistance and collaboration.
Indeed, I find myself this holiday week feeling more encouraged than ever about what we can collectively accomplish as a community. Our challenges are vast, and oftentimes seem insurmountable. But if what I witnessed on Puerto Rico over the weekend is any indication, there is every reason to be hopeful.