Technology is no match for powerful Category 5 hurricanes like Irma or Maria. But as anyone involved in the relief and recovery efforts of this past season’s hurricanes will attest, satellite technology can play a critical role in the preparation, duration and aftermath of natural disasters.
In a somber, largely educational Tuesday afternoon session, “Severe Weather and Natural Disasters — How Satellites Support Warning, Response and Recovery” at the SATELLITE 2018 Conference & Exhibition, five panelists shared their role during 2017’s intense hurricane season and offered lessons learned to attendees.
Tony Bardo, assistant vice president of government solutions at Hughes, said the most recent hurricane season demonstrated that having one single communications system is insufficient when disaster strikes. Hughes first established a retainer contract with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during the 2012 Superstorm Sandy, whereupon they would have units ready and deployable within 48 hours. But nothing prepared Bardo for the magnitude of the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on Puerto Rico.
“We were there six months,” Bardo recalled. “You can imagine all the challenges we dealt with, with an island, getting people there, having people there. We had to figure out where installers would sleep where they would eat, how to get gear there — just everything you would imagine would be more mainstream on the mainland, was anything but. It’s not like there was a fleet of humvees waiting for us at the airport.”
Hughes installed about 50 sites with terminals for FEMA and transmitted about 30,000 calls.
“It was just as hard and difficult a job as you would imagine,” said Bardo. “You can’t be everywhere and power was an issue. But this industry, like it does every time, responded really, really well.”
Bardo said his top takeaway from the experience is to assume future hurricanes and natural disasters are inevitable. “We’re talking with our customers down there, [saying] let’s find a place we can keep this [equipment] down there because this [hurricane] won’t be the last one,’” he said.
On the positive side, satellite also played a critical role in helping first responders and local and state governments prepare in advance of the hurricane. Most recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) launched the Joint Polar Satellite System 1 (JPSS 1) satellite, now called NOAA 20, which provides the global information for moisture and temperature that allows organizations to predict where a hurricane is going to go.
Joseph Pica, director of the office of observations at the U.S. National Weather Service (NWS), showed attendees — on large drop-down screens — how these GEO satellite systems and other technologies can create stunning, granular images that drive decisions.
“Our role is to provide weather and water forecasts that protect lives and enhance the economy,” said Pica. “We try to provide information to state, local, FEMA … so they can be prepared for weather as it comes. Satellites play a huge role in this, we’ve actually invested a lot in our infrastructure.”
Having access to visuals and information about the movement and severity of hurricanes and storms allows decision makers to take actions when time is of the essence, said Pica, noting that the governor of Florida was able to declare a state of emergency much sooner in the days before its most severe hurricanes made landfall, because of this technology.
Satellite technology also played a key role in helping individuals communicate with loved ones in other parts of the world when Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands lost power.
“We were in a bind right from the start,” said panelist Chris Tuttle, Region II coordinator for the office of emergency communications at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). “After Irma, Puerto Rico lost roughly 80 percent of power, and were already behind the 8 Ball.” Compounding that was the already delicate state of the electrical grid, he added. “This blends into a bigger conversation about prioritization of resources. We have a threshold we can support. After that, it’s highly dependent on the vendor community.”
Another wild card that can influence disaster response is weather. “The one thing we saw daily in Puerto Rico is that it rains,” said Tuttle. “It was a monsoon every day between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. You lost all microwave connectivity, all satellite connectivity.”
Ken Flowers, vice president of government at Iridium Communications, said that going forward, more training is needed for first responders, government officials and other leadership, to learn to use satellite phones. Iridium distributed hundreds of push-to-talk phones to its partners in the field, government officials and others in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake of the big hurricanes there.
“We can put a sat phone in the hands of people who don’t know how to use it and it won’t make a hell of a bean’s difference,” said Flowers. “When you can put a [phone] in the hands of an official and all he has to do is push a button and [position it] towards the sky, it makes it a hell of a lot easier.”
In addition, technology providers should ensure that the equipment they deploy post-disaster is easy to use, said Simon Gray, vice president of humanitarian affairs at Eutelsat.
“The first thing we did was supporting the police and the airports … and then moved out to the general population,” said Gray, referring to his company’s VSAT solutions. “You have a huge population that needs communication there. You’ve got to have sustainable systems that work after the disaster is over … they should be easy and quick and not require a ton of training.” VS