PA’LANTE: An Assessment of Information Needs in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

(This article originally appeared on The Listening Post Collective’s blog.)

At the bar El Local in San Juan, Puerto Rico, an entire wall is dedicated to a public chatroom where people in the community can leave each other messages, get updated recovery information, find a tarp for a roof and other relief items, or access stress relieving events like yoga classes. “We call it the analog chatroom — ‘in your FACEbook’ — a system to communicate with your friends,” a volunteer told us. The El Local public chatroom meets the information needs of the community members by simply providing a wall for them to share information and communicate with each other. There’s also a calendar where residents can sign up to volunteer to cook meals for local families.

A 3 story stucco building with the sign
El Local Bar and relief center in San Juan, Puerto Rico — Justin Auciello

In an effort to understand people’s information sharing innovations and ongoing needs, the Listening Post Collective (LPC) and its parent organization Internews conducted an information ecosystem assessment among communities in Puerto Rico impacted by Hurricane Maria.

We spent a week talking to residents, government officials, local media, humanitarian actors, and local businesses, both in San Juan and in more rural parts of Puerto Rico. Our aim was to better understand the physical, institutional, and social infrastructure of the local media. We also focused on communities’ recovery-related questions; the most effective means of sharing information; what questions communities have related to recovery; what the most effective forms of sharing information with communities are; which local media outlets are most successful in reaching communities with relevant recovery information; and how government officials and NGOs are communicating with affected populations.

We learned that, while life inside San Juan city limits is nowhere near back to normal, people are beginning to have consistent access to information tools like internet, cellphones, daily newspapers and radio. In the rural areas, however, people are still in the dark — both literally and figuratively. They rely on word of mouth from friends and neighbors, and the few radio stations that were able to get back on air after the storm.

Key findings

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans have been relying on a variety of sources to stay informed as they begin their recovery efforts.

Newspapers: People in and around the capital, San Juan, have mostly had access to physical copies of the island’s main newspaper El Nuevo Día. The outlet did not charge customers for papers directly after the storm, although it has since returned to charging.

The front pages of 4 newspapers are tacked on a wall

Radio stations: In rural areas, where total blackouts continue, functioning radio stations have been essential to getting locals information related to their situations. Beatriz Archilla, head of AM radio station WALO located on the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, says 90% of her programming is now recovery related. She’s been reliant on local government officials stopping by the radio station to share updates on basic services like water, electricity, schools, and roads.

Rural residents like Maritza Lopez rely on a battery operated radios to listen to local stations like WALO. Lopez lives in Corozal, southwest of San Juan. The roof and top floor of her house collapsed during the storm, and she and her family have been living in what’s left of the home for more than a month, with little food and no potable water. The closest store is 25 minutes away via storm-damaged mountain roads, and her family and neighbors haven’t seen any relief services as of the last week of October. In addition to the battery operated radio, the Lopez family relies even more importantly on neighbors to stay informed about what’s happening on the rest of the island.

Word of mouth: The most prolific information source for both urban and rural residents of Puerto Rico has undeniably been word of mouth. Ada Monzon, a Puerto Rican TV, radio, and internet reporter, has been getting out into rural areas to assess people’s ongoing problems. She says in many areas mayors are the only ones with access to official updates on recovery efforts, and they are spreading that news one person at a time. Monzon also says even the offline information channels have been difficult to access for many families. “They have radios, but sometimes they don’t have batteries, it’s very difficult for the flow of information at this point,” she said.

Monzon says as a reporter it’s tough to get the full story of the impact of Maria and the recovery because so many Puerto Ricans are still cut off from sharing what they know. “The history we are writing about Maria will be completed when we all have communications,” she said.

Word of mouth might seem like a step back for more modern parts of Puerto Rico, but in some other communities, it’s business as usual. In La Perla, an isolated, impoverished neighborhood in San Juan, locals said they’re relying heavily on hearing news from neighbors at the store and other hangouts. An early October NPR broadcast reported that someone from La Perla had written on a plywood board, “SOS. We need water. We need everything.”

On-line: The Puerto Rican central government is releasing the most updated estimates of when important services will be back online via and status.prReliefWeb, the global humanitarian resource website, is also sharing regular updates related to recovery efforts. These sites are of course not directly available to people in areas without functioning internet and cell service.

Grassroots: Some of the most effective information channels in post-Maria Puerto Rico have been largely organic endeavors. Here’s a list of a few of them:

Municipal Runners: Mayors and local government in rural areas have been the main organic channels between residents and the capital, where much of the official information exists. Some of that information sharing has happened via satellite phone and wifi access points provided by humanitarian organizations. We also heard from sources that local mayors are relying on “runners,” people who are able to go back and forth from San Juan to speak with Puerto Rican government officials, FEMA, and NGOs and bring that information back to share with community members.

Tumba Cocos: Some local governments in rural areas are using trucks with large speakers to share important recovery information. Popular for political campaigns, these vehicles with tumba cocos (election speakers) are passing through neighborhoods playing messages about aid distribution locations.

Ham Radio: Puerto Rican physics professor, Oscar Resto, has been leading an ad hoc team of Ham Radio operators to help FEMA, the National Guard and Puerto Rican government officials connect with each other throughout the island. Resto said his team was especially active in the immediate aftermath of the storm, when almost the entire telecom system on the island was down. His services are becoming less needed as more formal communication channels return.

A flyer from the Foundation for Puerto Rico

Fliers, Bulletin Boards, and Posters: One of the more consistent attempts to share information about recovery has been through community posters, bulletin boards, and fliers. The Contemporary Art Museum in San Juan began distributing fliers to different neighborhoods in the capital’s Santurce area offering help filling out FEMA paperwork. The flier lists all the necessary documents people need in order to file their recovery claims.

Government agencies have been distributing fliers around San Juan in Spanish from the CDC related to public health and specific things parents can do to ensure their families don’t get sick in the post-hurricane environment.

A poster says,

Carla Miranda, who works for the Rincón Beer Company Relief Center, is leading a local relief effort in the western coastal area. Her volunteer team started out by printing fliers with basic recovery information in both English and Spanish and going door to door to establish buy-in from communities. Miranda says her team also asked people to indicate their assistance needs by putting a yellow or red flag or shirt outside their door.

A billboard with several posters tacked on it.

Bulletin boards off rural roads in the mountainous parts of the island are being used to update residents on what local businesses are up and running. Southwest of San Juan in the Corozal area a community billboard had fliers up letting people know a local pediatrician was available, a local restaurant was open, and a Head-Start center was starting again.

Tech: variety of tech solutions have been offered to try and get people consistent communication capabilities. Google is sending balloons that are meant to give people in rural areas internet signals they can use to go online, a Facebook “connectivity team” was sent to Puerto Rico to deliver emergency telecommunications assistance, and Nethope’s Emergency Response Teamand the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center are on the ground restoring connectivity. Thor Nolen of Information Technology Disaster Resource Center told us that his team is assisting with establishing communications at health care facilities. The largest cable provider in Puerto Rico is establishing a “wi-fi” tour through December where they travel to municipal plazas around the island with a satellite internet device.

Javier Malavé, a San Juan based tech entrepreneur, is deploying mesh SMS networks in order to re-establish cell-phone access in some parts of Puerto Rico. His idea is to deploy solar-powered transmitters mounted on the top of buildings that will enable people to communicate via SMS. “You can drop them like bread crumbs and create a network trail,” he said.

Malavé’s plan is to establish SMS capacity in more than a dozen remote areas. His initial goal is to enable people to connect with family and also get recovery information from officials. “It creates a lot of stress not knowing and just waiting. There’s a lot of emotional stress. Just that little bit of a text message helps people stay grounded,” Malavé said.

Diaspora: One of the best ways for people in Puerto Rico to get information about their specific situations has been from the massive diaspora community in the U.S. An example is Angie Lamoli Silvestry, who is originally from Cabo Rojo, but now lives in New Orleans, where she experienced Hurricane Katrina more than a decade ago. Silvestry has been using that disaster experience to share tips and information with her relatives stuck on the island, researching recovery assistance online, and relaying that information as best she can back to her family in Cabo Rojo. She says she’s also trying to help counterbalance rumors her family is hearing about things like a cholera epidemic; help them locate basic items like bug-spray; and just be there to talk to them when cell service permits.

Silvestry also told the story of her 90-year-old uncle who was stuck in his home in Cabo Rojo and ran out of water. Luckily he had a functioning landline and was able to call her. Through her online research Silvestry was able to find a water distribution site just two blocks from his house.

Information needs and gaps: The initial rapid-response to Hurricane Maria is over, but much of the island is still waiting for consistent updates regarding basic resources like drinking water, electricity, phone service, tarps to cover damaged roofs, and more. Some of these questions will get answered in the near future, but others will continue to be asked for a long time, as community members head into a second month without consistent work and income, living in homes that remain beyond repair, and increasingly in need of psychosocial resources to help cope with the ongoing difficulties brought by the storm.

A flyer is posted on a storefront window

Carla Miranda, who helped set up a relief center in Rincón, said most people in rural areas start the morning wondering, “where am I going to find water? Food? Money? A new job?” Miranda said families in rural areas are desperate for water to drink, to wash clothes in, and for other essential activities.

Local reporter Ada Monzon said the potential for misinformation has been a real concern when it comes to recovery details due to word of mouth and no concrete and regular distribution system. Finding out valuable information in rural areas “is about who you know,” she said. For people that live far from aid distribution points, where food and water deliveries are irregular and where many have limited money to pay for gas, it’s a huge issue to have no or inconsistent information about resource access.

AM radio broadcaster Beatriz Archilla says most of the questions she’s getting from her audience revolve around when people will get basic water and electricity services back — “news you can use.” She says the other major information gap is people want to know how and when they can start the process of applying for recovery assistance with FEMA.

People in rural areas also have very little information about who is providing what assistance, when assistance providers are coming, and who they can connect with for specific needs. Ricardo Latimer has been helping the local NGOs Foundation for Puerto Rico and ConPRmetidos deliver food, water, and supplies to isolated areas. He says many of the residents he’s interacted with are completely in the dark about what kinds of help are available and when they might arrive. He said he’s often greeted with, “who are you and what do you have?” But Latimer said there are some information flow bright spots. In some neighborhoods in Aibonito, a mountain town that registers the highest elevation in Puerto Rico, he said tumba cococs were “blasting to the people to not drink from water streams, not shower in them, not wash their clothing because of bacteria and water sources.”

A utility pole fell over a road

Trust: Initial research indicated that information passed on from family (including diaspora), friends, and neighbors during this recovery period is the most trusted source news. People are also inclined to trust what information they are getting from local broadcast media, and in San Juan, El Nuevo Día newspaper.

During normal times residents indicated they are less likely to put trust in information shared by local officials, because of a culture of corruption on the island. But because of the relative isolation people outside of San Juan have found themselves in, many have been forced to rely more heavily on local mayors and other municipality officials for news and information.

One example of trust being built up over time is San Juan’s Museum of Contemporary Art which has spent the past four years offering community programs to some of the neighborhoods in their area. When the storm hit residents already viewed the museum as an essential resource center, and stopped by to see what relief and recovery efforts were happening. Museum director Marianne Ramírez has offered everything from food to art classes for kids whose schools haven’t reopened. “We have been in constant communication [with the nearby neighborhoods]. We are also very respectful with them. It’s a working relationship,” she said. “It’s really very, very special.”

Local Voices: Despite having experienced a major disaster that upended homes, jobs, and families, many residents around Puerto Rico have been quick to engage in their own relief and recovery effort, not waiting for a more formal aid response. Because many communities are cut off from normal communication channels, those stories have not readily gotten out. Locals also have struggled to voice their shifting needs and to get questions to officials in San Juan who might have answers.

We surveyed communities in neighborhoods around San Juan and in the rural areas of Corozal, Mayagüez and Toa Alta about their information needs, and what they themselves are experiencing post-Maria.

Filled out questionaires about information needs

Based on mixture of formal paper surveys and informal conversations, Puerto Ricans told us they were getting information mostly from the radio, word of mouth, newspapers and some social media; but also SMS, TV (satellite), newspapers, and messaging apps.

Residents told us that their information listening posts they’ve relied on after the storm include community recovery distribution centers, longer than usual lines in grocery stores and gas stations, plazas, parks, and any restaurants that have managed to re-open. A group of people we surveyed hanging outside a closed San Juan restaurant in the dark said information flow has been very organic, more than usual. “No hay area especifica, simplemente nos hablamos entre los vecinos cuando nos encontramos (there’s no specific area, simply neighbors talk with each other when we meet).” They said that whomever is getting the best recovery information shares it with friends and neighbors.

We also heard from respondents that the topics most on their mind relate to when utilities and telecommunications are returning in full. Some of the questions people shared regarding recovery information included, “how’s the progress going? How are locations outside the metro area? Where are the distribution centers? Where can I buy a generator? How come the help isn’t getting here?”

People told us the best ways to get them news were radio, some kind of verbal announcements, WhatsApp, phone calls, and Facebook messenger.

One of the people we spoke to in length, diaspora member Angie Lamoli Silvestry, shared a list of suggestions she had for how best to connect local residents to recovery information.

  1. Focus on specific areas on the island to create better information flow.
  2. Create centralized information spots in plazas, bulletin boards, live announcements, wi-fi access — everyone knows where it is.
  3. Have teams go out to tell neighborhood residents to come to plaza for information aid including, WIFI, FEMA forms, basic recovery info sheets.
  4. Recruit volunteers! People want to help. Physically go to fraternal orgs/churches to recruit.
  5. Many municipalities have a Facebook page. Sart getting them to post a regular recovery news update.
  6. Tumba cocos (election speakers). Get a truck with big speakers to drive through neighborhoods with recovery information and fliers.
  7. Activate mayors in rural areas as information hubs. Have them set up daily recovery information updates in the plazas.

Methodology: Making sense of the inevitable information chaos in a crisis starts by listening to the affected population. It is critical to find out what information people need and what they are not getting. A parallel track of inquiry examines the local context, what we call the information ecosystem. This local ecosystem will have its own particular nuances, strengths and weaknesses. And perhaps most importantly, its areas of trust and influence.

The information ecosystem is composed of the physical, social and institutional infrastructures that support information production and flow, including media outlets, government agencies, community groups, and local organic news sharing. It includes the information needs and gaps experienced by local residents in both an immediate and ongoing context, and the topics that are of primary interest. The ecosystem also considers where a community’s trust lies in terms of their ability to ask questions and get answers and information regarding the issues impacting their day to day existence.

The Internews/LPC information ecosystem assessment in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico included:

  • A one-week on the ground assessment done by LPC partner Justin Auciello, which included visits to San Juan, Corozal, Mayagüez and Toa Alta
  • Interviews with local media, NGOs, government officials and technologists
  • Discussions with Puerto Ricans affected by Hurricane Maria
  • Visiting community gathering places and observing how people share information
  • Desk research of the Puerto Rican media landscape
  • Monitoring media coverage of major international news sites and local Puerto Rican sites
  • Formal Information Needs Surveys with local communities
  • Collaboration with the INGO, Global Communities, who included information needs questions in a recovery survey it conducted, including what level of trust people had with the information they were getting about Maria recovery.

Conclusion: Based on our field research over the past few weeks it’s clear that, like clean water, electricity, housing, and other essential resources, information is desperately needed as part of the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. Even more, a two-way communication strategy is needed that will enable affected communities to both get ‘news they can use’ related to their recovery, and also share the things they are seeing and experiencing as they piece their neighborhoods back together. People have specific information needs depending on where in Puerto Rico they are located, and the channels for reaching them also vary. The post-Maria realities across the island will continue to require a variety of news sharing approaches to ensure recovery information gets to residents in the months ahead.

A damaged wooden building has a sign on it:
.     .     .

Jesse Hardman of Internews’ Listening Post Collective is a journalist, journalism professor, and international media developer.

(Banner photo: The community message board at El Local in San Juan, Puerto Rico —by  Justin Auciello)