Tech Lessons Learned From the Devastation of Hurricane Maria

Public Works Sub-Director Ramon Mendez, wearing a hard hat at left, works with local municipal workers to install a new electrical post to return power to a home without any, four months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico.

Public Works Sub-Director Ramon Mendez, wearing a hard hat at left, works with local municipal workers to install a new electrical post to return power to a home without any, four months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. Carlos Giusti/AP File Photo

Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands' CIOs discussed data security, relationships with wireless carriers and next-level training at NASCIO’s midyear conference.

BALTIMORE — Governments should back up data at a minimum of three locations and maintain a geospatial database of critical infrastructure ahead of disasters, according to the CIOs of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria devastated both territories’ infrastructure in September, while laying bare the flaws in their disaster recovery plans.

For the U.S. Virgin Islands, the biggest mistake was backing up data in the same building.

“Our system failed,” CIO Tony Riddick told the National Association of State CIOs, during Tuesday’s general session of the midyear conference in Baltimore. “And we’re still trying to recover our data.”

Government’s primary data location can be an app and the secondary location a building or the cloud, but the tertiary should be with the customer—its owner, Riddick added.

The territory lost sensitive data during recovery.

Even if Puerto Rico’s command center hadn’t been destroyed by Maria, the rural road leading there was inaccessible. For 72 hours after the hurricane made landfall on Sept. 20, government was at a standstill because 95 percent of cellular towers were rendered out of service, said CIO Luis Arocho, who had to walk to the governor's mansion to plan response and recovery efforts.

Federal Aviation Administration radars were in a similar state, meaning planes bringing aid were forced to land without assistance from airport communications.

By Sept. 29, only 15 percent of telecommunications antennas were working, despite re-establishing communications being the first goal of a collaboration between key agencies including the Puerto Rico Telecommunications Regulatory Board, Office of the Governor and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For the first time, the CIO was given a leadership role on the island.

Arocho reached out to major wireless carriers like Verizon Wireless, AT&T Mobility, T-Mobile and Sprint Corporation for help, only to find “some of them, they didn’t even have a plan.” Their generators and the diesel to power them were being stolen by looters, and Puerto Rico couldn’t provide security with 80 percent of the National Guard unaccounted for on the island.

“Put your critical infrastructure in a geospatial database,” Arocho said.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands cell communications were lost too, and despite getting one tower up and running, the generator was stolen eight hours later. The culprit is now being punished for a federal crime.

Google assisted Puerto Rico with Project Loon, a high-altitude balloon bringing LTE connectivity, though it took six days for the FAA to approve and longer for the balloon to reach the island.

Satellite phones were doled out to emergency responders, city mayors and key government officials; cell on wheels towers were deployed; and the point-to-point microwave solution NetHope saw 13 antennas connected from Trujillo Alto to Aguada with a focus on town plazas.

As part of a new communications/IT sector resilience plan, Puerto Rico has since developed its own algorithm to determine actual cell coverage on the island.

“Make sure you bring the carriers to the table,” Arocho said. “They will be reluctant, but show them our story.”

When the U.S. Virgin Islands were compromised, that’s when hackers struck—shedding light on IT security vulnerabilities.

Training of his 18-person staff was “suspect,” Riddick said, causing the territory to rethink how it prepares for disasters coupled with cyber threats.

“Pull the plug out of the wall and see how you operate,” he added. “Send some people home and see how you operate.”

Currently 20 percent of Puerto Rico lacks power, and the public corporation that owns the infrastructure, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, has been bankrupt for years. Meanwhile, the U.S. Virgin Islands estimates it will cost $330 million to underground fiber, telephone and power lines to avoid a repeat of Maria.

Before the hurricane, the last major storm the U.S. Virgin Islands experienced was in 1989, so Riddick and his team have worked to increase their visibility with the Police Department and commissioner and the Territorial Emergency Management Agency.

“We’ve taken on the role of IT project manager,” Riddick said.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to clarify that 95 percent of cell towers on Puerto Rico were rendered out of service by Hurricane Maria but not necessarily destroyed.