This article is contributed by Ewan Morrison for Cisco.
A year ago, after Hurricane Maria battered the United States territory of Puerto Rico, much of the island’s infrastructure was damaged, making rescue and relief efforts difficult and leaving most residents with no way to communicate with anyone beyond their immediate community.
But in the immediate aftermath of the storm, just when things seemed the most hopeless, many volunteers, businesses, and nonprofits moved in to help. One of these was NetHope, a nonprofit organization that aims to empower underserved communities by providing crucial technology and connectivity. Partnering with the Tactical Operations (TacOps) team from international technology company Cisco, as well as additional Cisco employee volunteers, NetHope was on the ground in Puerto Rico within a week, working to re-establish connectivity and communication lines.
“One of the first things you want to do is get [emergency responders] connected ... because they are the ones who are going out there and distributing aid,” said Rami Shakra, NetHope’s field operations director.
After helping emergency responders and relief workers to get connected, NetHope and Cisco started to reconnect remote communities. They focused on gathering places such as town squares and community centers, eventually establishing public Wifi in more than 70 locations throughout the island.
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Barrio Espino, an isolated area in the mountains above the city of San Lorenzo, is one of those communities. The main gathering place in Espino is home to the local school, a small market, a pizza shop, and the only pharmacy for miles around.
For many customers of the pharmacy in Espino, the lack of communications in the weeks following Maria reached crisis levels. The pharmacy was able to open its doors several days after the storm, but without network connectivity, it had no way of billing insurance providers, which meant that most of its customers couldn’t afford their medicine.
In the wake of the hurricane, Hector Pagan, a 68-year-old resident of Espino who suffers from diabetes and requires insulin daily, was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to get his medicine. After a few days, however, Pagan was relieved to hear the pharmacy was open again. But the relief was short-lived.
“I got to the counter and the pharmacist told me there was no communication with the insurance provider, and that there is a possibility that I would not be able to get my medication,” Pagan said. “Right there and then, my world collapsed.”
Pharmacist Edwin Valentin worked tirelessly in the weeks after the storm to help his customers receive the medication they needed. But he could only shoulder the cost for a limited time, and was very close to closing the pharmacy for good when NetHope and Cisco arrived and were able to establish a public Wifi connection in Espino.
“The day that we were able just to turn on the computers and be able to know that we can communicate with those insurance providers, it was just an amazing feeling,” said Valentin.
Once the network connection was established, life in Espino changed, according to Valentin. Not only was he able to return to providing regular services at the pharmacy, but the surrounding community was able to connect to the rest the world. “Everybody’s mood changed in a positive way,” he said.
No one was happier than Hector Pagan. “Once we heard the news that the pharmacy was able to process the claims, it was such a relief!” he concluded.
The power of connections can’t be overstated. Which is why over the past 15 years, Cisco TacOps has assisted governments, militaries and organizations such as NetHope to reestablish communications after 50 major disasters and other events worldwide. And why they will continue to go wherever disaster strikes to help those who need it most.
Because the first thing we connect to is hope.