Wireless Network Recovery Following Natural Disaster: Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria
26 Pages Posted: 19 Mar 2018 Last revised: 16 Aug 2018
Date Written: March 16, 2018
American planners often prepare for disasters on the assumption that outages due to infrastructure damage can be resolved in a matter of days, but this will not always be the case. In September 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, doing extreme damage to the power grid, the telecommunications infrastructure, and more. This left many residents of Puerto Rico without power, telephone and Internet service for a period of many months. The same could happen if a large earthquake hit Los Angeles, or a class 5 hurricane hit Miami. This paper characterizes approaches that have been adopted in Puerto Rico to restore some degree of telecommunications services during the long period before all damage could be repaired, and the impact these approaches have had. Some responses have been led by infrastructure operators. For example, mobile network operators have sometimes but not always cooperated in restoration of service, and these operators have begun relying heavily on providers of diesel generators and fuel. Some responses have been led by non-profit organizations that have filled critical gaps left by more traditional service providers. We analyze the Puerto Rican case through the lens of two constructs: improvisation and modularity. Improvisation, and other emergent behaviors, have been shown to be crucial element of effective disaster response in many contexts, including the water-born evacuation of lower Manhattan by boat owners after 9/11  and the response to Hurricane Katrina . In some cases, improvisation also plays a role in the technologies employed by emergency managers . We also observe improvisation in the repair of the telecommunications infrastructure. As suggested by Mendoca et al. (2007), improvisation has both organizational and technological elements. Here, we examine the relationship between improvisation and modularity. The Puerto Rican case demonstrates how technological modularity creates opportunities to ‘plug and play’ with various technologies. For example, we witnessed cellular backhaul being provided via WiFi. That WiFi was provided by a non-profit organization operating in Puerto Rico only for the duration of the disaster response. We use this example as impetus for further exploration of organizational modularity, to understand the characteristics of both technologies and organizations as modular, and in turn open to interacting with different components or collaborators. Our findings, derived from field research conducted in January 2018, interviews with responding organizations, and secondary data reports, will have both theoretical and practical merit. The research provides insights into the relationship between emergent behaviors and the concept of modularity, suggesting modularity serves as precursor or accelerant to improvisation. Our research will also provide critical insights into telecommunications infrastructure recovery from catastrophic disasters in an area likely to plagued by storms in the years to come.  Kendra, J., & Wachtendorf, T. (2007). Improvisation, creativity, and the art of emergency management. Understanding and responding to terrorism, 19, 324-335. [2} Rodriguez, H., Trainor, J., & Quarantelli, E. L. (2006). Rising to the challenges of a catastrophe: The emergent and prosocial behavior following Hurricane Katrina. The annals of the American academy of political and social science, 604(1), 82-101.  Mendonça, D., Jefferson, T., & Harrald, J. (2007). Collaborative adhocracies and mix-and-match technologies in emergency management. Communications of the ACM, 50(3), 44-49.
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