Opinion: How satellites provide a lifeline when disaster strikes

Cars navigating down a recently cleared road in Puerto Rico. Photo by: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Hurricanes Irma and Maria wrought an unprecedented level of destruction on Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands, decimating infrastructure and leveling homes, buildings, bridges and dams. The storm erased some 2,400 miles of transmission lines, leaving more than 3 million residents, businesses, hospitals, schools and other institutions without power, and depriving more than half of the population of access to clean water.

In the storm’s immediate aftermath, people, businesses and government officials, eager to jumpstart recovery efforts, lacked one fundamental asset: the ability to communicate. The loss of the electrical grid meant that terrestrial forms of communication were unavailable. With heavy architectural damage everywhere, no power, and the airport and ports inoperable, first response groups faced major challenges, including how to organize a massive logistical undertaking and communicate in a chaotic environment, with few channels beyond word-of-mouth.

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Against this backdrop, satellite technology helped to bridge the communications gap, supporting the Federal Emergency Management Agency and first responders’ efforts in restoring critical infrastructure functionality.

Examples of response on the ground

In Puerto Rico, Hughes, an international provider of broadband satellite services, deployed over 900 very small aperture terminals, or VSATs, at sites around the region after Hurricane Maria, enabling broadband-tier speeds of 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload connectivity. Since Hughes was already a service provider on the island, they were able to immediately deploy a number of terminals from local partners such as Today’s Satellite TV and Coamo Satellite Service to critical sites, including pharmacies and hospitals. Further, Hughes partnered with Response Force 1 to assist FEMA’s earliest missions in assessing the damage to the island by deploying satellite terminals to the San Juan Airport and other critical locations.

But it wasn’t until the airport and seaports became regularly operational again that Hughes was able to ramp up VSAT terminal shipments to meet the high level of demand for connectivity. Operating over high throughput satellites, or HTS, the terminals provided the necessary bandwidth and flexibility for first responders to transmit and receive data and images, make voice over IP, or VoIP, calls, as well as help island businesses to re-open and people to connect to their loved ones on the U.S. mainland.

“When it comes to communications, satellite connectivity offers the only true alternate path to terrestrial networks, making it an essential part of emergency preparedness and in getting a community back on its feet in the aftermath of a disaster.”

— Dave Zatloukal, executive vice president of service delivery, Hughes

One local retailer, for example, used his showroom VSAT terminal, powered by their building’s backup generator, to re-establish Wi-Fi connectivity. Once word got out that his store had Wi-Fi, people from the community gathered to reconnect to the outside world using their cell phones and devices, to make voice calls over the satellite Internet connection, as cellular networks were disabled. At the one hospital on the south side of the island, leadership teams were able to leverage their satellite connectivity for multiple applications such as ordering refills of medicine and supplies, updating patient medical records online, coordinating patient transportation, and telemedicine video conferencing with specialists abroad.

Averting a catastrophe after the storms

Satellite communications also enabled preventative measures to be taken that helped mitigate further disaster once the storms began to subside. Three days after Hurricane Maria made landfall, and with the storm still whipping its bands across the northwest side of the island, officials feared that Puerto Rico’s 90-year-old Guajataca Dam structure was about to fail. The dam was built to create a lake for drinking water and for hydro-electricity production — its failure would put tens of thousands of lives downstream at further risk.

Lacking power from the failed grid, teams from the National Weather Service employed a gas generator to power their local satellite terminal to alert agencies in the U.S., including the Department of Defense and FEMA. This resulted in a timely evacuation of thousands of nearby residents who were at risk from flash flooding.

Fortunately, the dam suffered only a controlled breach but was quickly restored to a stable, while less functional condition, as evacuees were transported to local emergency shelters. But the process serves as a compelling example of how satellite communications helped mitigate a potentially catastrophic outcome, supporting the rapid response by government agencies and local officials.

Re-establishing infrastructure

Two months after the storms, the overall reconstruction effort required is still daunting. With more than half the population still without power, satellite communications remains a vital link to rebuilding Puerto Rico. For example, it plays a key role in reestablishing the island’s food and supply network by re-connecting point-of-sale functionality through credit and debit card terminals at pharmacies, home improvement stores and other retail locations. With the island facing a severe cash crunch in the hurricane's’ aftermath, credit and debit card access is essential to a population dependent on government nutrition assistance benefits, processed electronically via government issued debit cards.

This year's tumultuous hurricane season has served as a reminder that emergency responders, relief workers and others in the field can mitigate the outage impact by having the right contingency plans in place. Ultimately, an efficient disaster response is difficult to execute without reliable communications.

Be better prepared in future

Satellite technology should undoubtedly be a part of Continuity of Operations, or COOP, planning. When cell phone towers are damaged and terrestrial circuits are under floodwaters, a satellite broadband service as a backup to terrestrial networks for critical points of communication helps ensure critical sites including hospitals, pharmacies and government offices remain online to support vital operations such as coordinating rescue assistance and responding to emergency requests.

This should include backup at 911 call centers and at cellular towers where terrestrial backhaul —  whether cable, fiber or microwave — is vulnerable. Mobile satellite communications should also be factored into advance planning, such as employing Hughes Broadband Global Area Network, or BGAN, portable units, which can be operated virtually anywhere over Inmarsat’s satellite coverage area providing responders with high-quality voice and data connectivity.

The ongoing effort to rebuild Puerto Rico’s infrastructure will take many years and cost billions of dollars. Though nothing can be done to prevent future disasters, the main lesson learned echoes that of the past, namely, to be as prepared as possible. And when it comes to communications, satellite connectivity offers the only true alternate path to terrestrial networks, making it an essential part of emergency preparedness and in getting a community back on its feet in the aftermath of a disaster.

What’s the link between satellites and development? Devex, Inmarsat and the U.K. Space Agency take a look in Satellites for Sustainability. We explore the role of space programs and satellite technology in facilitating mission-critical connectivity and ask if it can provide sustainable economic or societal benefits in developing countries. Join us by tagging #Sats4SDGs and @Devex as we make it our mission to discover the link between connectivity and solving global challenges.

About the author

  • Zatloukal d

    Dave Zatloukal

    Dave Zatloukal is the executive vice president of service delivery for the North American Division at Hughes Network Systems, LLC. Focusing on broadband products and services, the division operates the largest satellite broadband network for consumers in the U.S. with over 1 million consumer and small business subscribers. Hughes is also the leading provider of broadband satellite solutions for medium and large businesses as well as for government.