In 2017, Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico. The tiny U.S. territory was ill-prepared for the Caribbean’s worst natural disaster ever. The storm caused major property damage and numerous human deaths. Some U.S. companies believe communication during disasters is key—and they want to help before the next storm hits.
Following Maria, most citizens suffered extreme flooding and a lack of basic necessities, including food and water. God, who controls all things, allowed the storm. But its devastation was made worse by the extremely slow relief process. Accessing devastated areas was impossible aside from traveling on foot. Sometimes supplies got delivered to neighborhoods that already had them while those in desperate need went without. Thousands of homes and businesses lacked power for nearly a year.
But according to Nazario Lugo, a former emergency management director, “The biggest crisis after Maria was communication.”
The hurricane destroyed telephone service, so after the storm, people across Puerto Rico invented low-tech ways to communicate. Folks needing food or water raised a flag at their homes. Neighbors created amateur security systems, banging on pots each night to mark the start of curfew—after that, any human noise was considered a call for help.
As ingenious as those methods are, Puerto Rico’s officials want systems that will help survivors connect with authorities, speed response times, and give help where it’s needed most.
Bryan Knouse leads a team backed by IBM. He wants his system to be simple. For someone in the middle of a disaster, downloading an app or visiting a website—“Not gonna happen,” he says.
Project OWL (Organization, Whereabouts, Logistics) uses tiny transmitter boxes stuck to trees with Velcro. The boxes emit a low-frequency wi-fi connection. Users link up via smartphones. Once connected, an English-Spanish pop-up appears. People can enter details like locations of downed power lines or blocked roads. The information gets relayed to emergency officials.
When Puerto Rican tech developer Pedro Cruz couldn’t reach his ailing grandmother after Maria, he flew his drone to her house. She waved through the window. “She heard the drone and knew it was me,” Cruz says.
That gave Cruz an idea. He leads a team that wants to distribute large mats emblazoned with symbols indicating needs—food, water, or medical care. The mats could be laid on flat surfaces after a storm. Programmed drones would fly overhead, read the symbols, and process them for emergency responders.
Hurricane season starts June 1. Is Puerto Rico ready for another big storm?