Three and a half weeks out from Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico, the statistics remain dire. Only 63% of the island’s 3.5 million residents have access to clean water; in the North, the figure is 29%. Only 19% of cellular antennas are functioning, delivering mobile service to about 29% of the island. And, perhaps most critically, only 9% of the electrical grid is functioning, meaning more than 1 million people go to sleep every night without power. Some estimates are that parts of the island will be without power for months, or even years.
As the disaster sputters out of the response mode and into the recovery phase, the ongoing loss of energy and communications services will become increasingly critical. Without power, schools are closed. Hospitals, which were already housing patients flown in from outlying islands hit by Irma, are working under tremendous strain. Credit card services don’t work, making people dependent on cash drawn from a crippled ATM network for food, fuel and services.
When your kids can’t go to school, and you can’t get to your job, reasonable people start to make other plans. Those with family on the mainland, and those with access to resources, are already starting to leave. The airport is the one facility in the country operating at 100% capacity and some airlines are capping one-way fares at $99 to the mainland. It makes more sense to go than stay.
This growing diaspora has the potential to cripple the economy and social fabric of Puerto Rico long after roads are rebuilt and the electrical grid is put back together.
The heartbreaking reality that Puerto Rico could lose a massive number of people will have a deep impact on those who stay, creating a layer of social fragility on top of the already weakened physical infrastructure. In this context, it is critical that those organizations active in Puerto Rico — from the government to the private sector to NGOs and civil society — make every effort to put communities and their unique and evolving needs at the center of the response and recovery efforts.
What does that look like?
It means creating respectful, two-way communications with the affected populations. It means ensuring that their voices are heard and their concerns addressed. It means never assuming what people want and always getting their input. Beyond that, it means ensuring that they have access to trusted, locally relevant information that enables them to make good choices in very hard circumstances.
The parlance for the approach we advocate, communicating with communities, is increasingly a part of the disaster response playbook. However, we fear that in the case of Puerto Rico, this communications playbook isn’t launching fast enough. Our partners tell us that most people are relying on one-way communications from the government. Much of what is heard on the radio – the primary media that reaches across the island – pertains to San Juan, where mainland correspondents and local journalists live. Information coming out of small towns and remote areas is often erroneous and relayed on informal networks, full of rumors and misinformation. There are very few reporters getting information to, or hearing from, local areas, services and issues.
In our experience, a lack of trusted, local information in a humanitarian crisis creates significant additional stress for affected populations. Over time, when information channels are filled with misinformation, communities can start to fray and the risk of social unrest rises. As mobile cell towers start to be set up — which is predicted as early as next week – the reestablishment of peer to peer connections on mobile phones and social media may only serve to accelerate misinformation and rumors. We must be ready to deal with these challenges.
What do we need to do now? We must empower communities with locally relevant information and we must listen and inform at the local level. Well thought-out and supported communications is critical to a prosperous and sustainable recovery for Puerto Rico and its communities.
(Banner photo: flooding in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria. Credit Justin Auciello/Puerto Rico Hurricane News)