The unprecedented destruction and humanitarian crises spawned by Hurricanes Maria and Irma revealed the significant role satellite communications play in disaster relief – especially in the Caribbean, where Puerto Rico’s, Dominica’s, and Barbuda’s communications grids were completely destroyed by the hurricanes. In an exclusive interview, CEO Matt Desch discussed the role Iridium’s satellite communication services continues to play in the disaster relief and recovery effort.
No one could have predicted the scale of the disasters:
In just 25 days between 26 August and 20 September, four natural and deadly disasters ripped through the Caribbean, Texas, and Florida.
The devastation and humanitarian crises inflicted by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria were unprecedented in their scale and scope – with the prolonged and most pronounced effects felt most severely on the U.S. island of Puerto Rico and the island nations of Antigua and Barbuda and Dominica.
For the Caribbean, the devastation came in just 14 days.
On 6 September, Hurricane Irma devastated Antigua and Barbuda as a Category 5 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 185 mph (295 km/h).
Just three days later, Hurricane Jose scraped by the islands as an immensely powerful Category 4 hurricane, bringing even more devastating winds to the already decimated region.
Twelve days after Irma struck Barbuda, Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island of Dominica near peak intensity as a deadly Category 5 hurricane with winds of 160 mph before moving on to devastate the island of Puerto Rico on 20 September.
All told, Irma destroyed 95% of all structures on Barbuda, including all of its communications and power assets. In the immediate aftermath, the island was deemed to be uninhabitable.
Likewise, Irma also rendered uninhabitable 60% of the island of Saint Martin, where 70% of houses were destroyed as were large portions of its power and communications grids.
More than a month after Irma, Barbuda remained largely uninhabitable, and large portions of Antigua (where Barbuda’s inhabitants were evacuated to in the three days between Irma and Jose) was still without power and communication.
On Dominica, the island – like Barbuda – was completely cut off from the world as its communication towers and infrastructure were destroyed by Maria. In total, 90% of structures on the island were either destroyed or severely damaged.
On the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the situation was just as bad.
As of writing on 28 October, 38 days after Maria’s impact, more than 75% of Puerto Rico is still without power and reliable methods of communication as much of the island’s power grid and communication systems were completely destroyed by Maria.
Recovery and rebuilding efforts throughout the Caribbean are anticipated to take years, not months – with some areas likely to never fully recover from the devastation imparted to the region in just 14 days.
Particularly for the Caribbean, Irma and Maria revealed in large scale the fragility of terrestial cellular communications networks and the need for and reliance on satellite communication services in the days, weeks, and months following natural disasters.
Satellite communications – Saving lives and aiding recovery efforts:
For many of the affected areas, the initial first response from local authorities and international aid groups relied heavily on satellite communication devices provided by or procured from Iridium Communications.
As related by Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium Communications, in an exclusive interview with NASASpaceflight.com, “The thing about hurricanes is that they don’t come like earthquakes and other natural disasters that come too fast to prepare for,” stated Mr. Desch. “So there was some preparation. But no one expected the scale and the scope of this.”
The ability to forecast hurricanes days in advance is extremely important in aiding first response and recovery efforts as it allows for the deployment of pre-positioned satellite communication assets quickly after a hurricane’s passage.
The complicating factors with the back-to-back natural disasters in this specific case was that these pre-positioned sat com assets largely have to be flown into affected areas – and many of the affected airports were severely damaged and unusable in the days after Irma and Maria’s passages.
Additionally, many of those pre-positioned assets were in Florida, which was struck by Hurricane Irma just days before Maria tore through Dominica and Puerto Rico.
Owing to their use in such emergencies, Iridium – through its service partners – specifically pre-position satellite communication assets in earthquake and hurricane prone areas so that the initial responses to such disasters can be coordinated quickly and assets purchased and deployed to areas where they are needed.
“It’s the reason I have CNN up on the TV in my office because it’s sort of an early warning about where we might get a spike in need,” noted Mr. Desch. “A lot of time it’s the need for equipment quickly that we have to respond to and that’s always good to know.”
But the sheer scale of devastation and destruction of the communication networks in the Caribbean were unlike anything Iridium had experienced before in terms of the demand and longevity of the need for its satellite communication services.
In past natural disasters, Iridium saw a large and sometimes significant spike in the need for satellite communication equipment and demand on the satellite network itself in the first couple of days to a week after a disaster, with that need dropping off and returning to normal as the terrestial communications systems (i.e. cell phone towers and power grid) came back online.
But the Caribbean this year is different.
“We’re seeing something on a scale that we have not seen before. And Puerto Rico alone has gone beyond everything we’ve seen,” noted Mr. Desch.
“Maria has been off the charts extraordinary particularly in the Leeward Islands that consists of Puerto Rico and the British and American Virgin Islands and a little bit around Dominique and a couple others that eye went over or near.”
For Puerto Rico specifically, prior to Maria Mr. Desch noted that roughly 500 minutes per day of satellite communication use was registered by the Iridium Network from the various scientists working in remote parts of the island.
In the initial days after Maria, that number jumped to 20,000 minutes per day – a 3,900% increase on just Puerto Rico alone.
Additionally, prior to Maria there were roughly 5 to 10 unique sat com devices operating on Puerto Rico, a number that increased to 5,000 unique devices in the initial aftermath before stabilizing at nearly 2,000 unique devices still in operation each day on the island.
And that usage is only representative of the commercial first response, aid, and recovery effort – with the U.S. government’s use of satellite communication technology for its lagging Puerto Rico effort not available due to classification reasons.
In short, the reliance on and need for satellite communication in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean has – by more than four weeks at this point – outlasted all other natural disasters in which Iridium has been a part of the response.
How Iridium’s sat com devices/services have aided Caribbean response and recovery:
With estimates that it will take into next year to fully rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid, the usage of satellite communication is not expected to taper off anytime soon.
The primary way Iridium was able to respond so rapidly to each of the hurricanes in short succession was their strategy of not acting as a distributor themselves but rather contracting with service partners who in turn pre-position assets with regional distributors.
“No one expected the scale and the scope of this. There were about five thousand devices required during Maria, and there were about a thousand that were ready beforehand,” noted Mr. Desch.
“So there was still quite a bit of scrambling just because no one knew exactly where it was going to hit. And no one anticipated that Puerto Rico specifically was going to get hit as hard as it did.”
In addition to its pre-position assets through service providers, Iridium itself maintains a limited inventory of devices they loan out in natural disasters.
Those loaner devices are normally reserved for major sponsorships, such as scientific research expeditions or for members of media who are heading off the beaten path.
That reserved loaner inventory was quickly depleted to assist several local organizations who were deploying into impacted areas to communicate with first responders, aid organizations, and allow residents to connect with family members.
Regardless of the devices’ status as either loaner or purchased/rented equipment, these assets were paramount in the initial days after the three hurricanes hit in terms of providing communication for first responders responsible for rescuing people and saving as many lives as possible.
The satellite comm devices instantly provided reliable methods of communication for first responders combing through neighborhoods, villages, towns, and communities searching for survivors in need of rescue or supplies.
They allowed for the coordination of life-saving efforts and evacuation of numerous areas in post-storm flooding conditions.
In particular, Iridium’s push-to-talk satellite communication device proved extremely useful in eliminating confusion and communication relays that occur with normal satellite phone technology.
According to Mr. Desch, with satellite phones, you can only talk to one person at a time, and you have to know that person’s number because these aren’t phones that store all of your needed contacts.
“If you’re trying to get a message out to multiple people, using a satellite phone can be time-consuming, and sometimes the message can get muddied as it’s passed from person to person,” said Mr. Desch.”
With the push-to-talk service – that routes through the Iridium satellite constellation – first responders, emergency personnel, and power grid workers can stay in constant communication with one another as a single group.
“You push the side button and it acts just like a Nextel phone,” said Mr. Desch. “And you can have hundreds of other devices all linked into it on the same talk group. So a person talks to the whole group and everyone hears them.
“It’s like a tactical radio, and it’s actually in many ways a better product for an emergency like this. You literally turn it on and push a button and that’s all you have to think about.
“To have all the people who are managing the relief activities in a single town literally be on the same channel, you can imagine how much quicker that goes without needing to dial specific people.”
On a personal level, as the slow process of rebuilding the power and communications grid proceeds in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean, satellite communication devices have been instrumental in allowing family members to talk with loved ones.
“For people who were desperate to talk to their families, we were able to sometimes get access to the millions of people who wanted to or needed to use our products,” said Mr. Desch.
The scale of the disasters in August and September is a stark reminder of the power nature holds and the fragility of the terrestrial communication systems we now rely on for almost all of our daily activities.
The question is often asked why people should care about the satellites we launch into orbit.
In truth, most people will never need or make use of our satellite communication networks like the one Iridium is currently in the process of upgrading.
However, those networks are invaluable when a disruption to our communication services is not an inconvenience but a potentially life-threatening situation when someone finds themselves in a position of needing to call for help and for first responders to coordinate recovery and rescue operations.
The response to the Caribbean and Gulf hurricanes is perhaps the most visible use of satellite communication networks like Iridium’s, but their use in those disasters can be aided by a wider understanding of their usefulness and not just a pre-positioning of those resources in regional centers but in their distribution and upkeep in areas prone to such disasters.
(Images: Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, NOAA, Iridium Communications, Network Innovations, the American Red Cross, and Defense Video Imagery Distribution System)