Imagine a storm washing away your ability to communicate by phone, email, or text. Picture it knocking out your electricity and cutting off your supply of food and clean water. If you need help, you have no way to ask for it. If you have loved ones, you have no way to confirm they are safe.

That is what happened to Puerto Rico’s entire population of 3.4 million people when Hurricane Maria devastated the island on September 20.

Even today, two months later, more than 20 percent of residents still do not have access to running water, and more than 50 percent do not have electricity.

But when some people’s lives are turned upside-down, others are eager to help. Many of these heroes work for nonprofit organizations that fill a void when disasters strike. They provide food, shelter, medicine, health care, financial assistance, personal hygiene products, and more.

Restoring communications and critical needs

One of these organizations is NetHope, which is restoring a critical service in Puerto Rico–internet connectivity. Without connectivity, aid organizations can’t easily find out who needs help, where they are, or what they need. Hospitals, utilities, and governments can’t provide essential services that communities depend on.

NetHope is a collaboration of over 50 international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that deliver information technology solutions to the developing world, especially during times of crisis. Cisco helped found NetHope in 2001 in collaboration with Save the Children—and has supported the organization with equipment, employee time, and expertise ever since.

In Puerto Rico, NetHope has played the lead coordination role for connectivity. To date, this amazing team of technologists has installed communications equipment at 37 sites, providing connectivity to:

  • Responding NGOs, like Mercy Corps, Save the Children, International Medical Corps, Oxfam, and Feeding America
  • Emergency operations centers
  • City halls
  • Hospitals and clinics
  • Public wi-fi hot-spots

NetHope has received requests for communications support for 120 sites, and its team anticipates having a strong presence in Puerto Rico for the next several months, slowly phasing out their work and handing over ownership to local providers.

Longer-term impact

NetHope will make another valuable contribution to the island–providing employment opportunities to local residents whose income has been wiped out by the hurricane.

When NetHope first began working in Puerto Rico, 95 percent of its team came from off the island. Several weeks ago, they began employing local contractors, who now account for half of their team. By the end of the year, they expect the team to be 90 percent local residents.

Emanuel Osoria is one of those locals who has joined the NetHope team–and developed new IT skills in the process. He ran a small tourism operation until Hurricane Maria wiped out the tourism industry in Puerto Rico. But Emanuel continued to drive people to and from the airport, eventually picking up a staff member from NetHope.

She later hired him to help transport heavy equipment to hard-to-reach locations. Despite having no formal training, Emanuel started helping with installations—carrying dishes, running cable, and translating for members of the team. Now officially a field tech, he’ll receive more training and continue to provide desperately needed connectivity in communities across the island.

Cisco’s own team of disaster responders is on the ground in Puerto Rico, too, lending their IT expertise to support connectivity efforts.

Since late September, six members of our Tactical Operation Team (TacOps) and five employee volunteers with our Disaster Incident Response Team (DIRT) have deployed to Puerto Rico in two-week rotations. They are committed to supporting NetHope through mid-December. Three local employees even jumped in and volunteered with TacOps in the early days after the hurricane.

Employees pitch in

Even our team of 13 employees in Puerto Rico–despite struggling with their own personal challenges–supported the NetHope and TacOps teams. They helped with transportation, hauled gear, facilitated local contacts, and even transformed the office into a staging area in the weeks immediately following the hurricane.

Re-establishing communications after disasters is critical. Without it, delivering critical human needs like food, water, shelter, and medical care takes longer and reaches fewer people.

We are proud to partner with NetHope and other nonprofits and NGOs that are helping Puerto Rico citizens and communities recover from this catastrophe. But the devastation was massive and there is still more work to be done.

Here in the United States, we are celebrating Thanksgiving this week. It is a to think about what we are thankful for, but also to remember the people who need our help.

In that spirit, please consider supporting our Disaster Relief Fund for the Caribbean and Puerto Rico, which benefits six nonprofit organizations.



Tae Yoo

No Longer with Cisco