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The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the government’s in-house watchdog, recently released a report that examines the Trump FCC’s protracted attempts to restore communications in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria struck in September of 2017. This report was years in the making and is part of a long struggle to learn the whole truth of the government’s response to this disaster.

The report found that the FCC’s role was not clearly defined and that the agency wasn’t transparent about its efforts. On this last point, the GAO noted that the FCC did not sufficiently engage with the Puerto Ricans on the islands who were most impacted by the devastation. Unfortunately, the report does not offer any specifics about how the FCC’s murky role and lack of engagement harmed affected communities.

There are still many questions left to be answered. The Trump FCC ignored our constant and repeated requests to thoroughly investigate the near-collapse of Puerto Rico’s communications infrastructure and the delayed recovery efforts that left people on the islands without the ability to communicate for months. With hurricane season underway, we urge the Biden FCC to undertake this long-overdue task.

What led to the GAO report

Hurricane Maria obliterated the communications infrastructure on the islands of Puerto Rico in 2017: 95 percent of cell sites were out of service, TV and radio stations went dark, and, for those fortunate few who had phone service, calls to 911 went unanswered.

Free Press, along with our allies, immediately urged the FCC to use its expert knowledge to closely monitor and help accelerate recovery and restoration efforts. Over a year after the hurricane devastated the islands, it was clear that an investigation into the agency’s role was necessary to truly understand why Puerto Ricans were still struggling to get reliable access to communications.

And yet we met resistance to our questions when we called on the Trump FCC to be more transparent and engage with the affected populations.

In an attempt to get some answers on our own, Free Press filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking the FCC for several types of documents — including documents related to its secretive Hurricane Recovery Task Force. We received wired and wireless consumer complaints in response to the FOIA, which offered a small window into a much larger problem where carriers promoted refunds and relief for the extensive loss in services, but failed to deliver on those promises.

One complainant in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, wrote that communications remained unreliable nearly two months after Maria made landfall:

“I live in Puerto Rico and system was down for 2 months (September and October) due to hurricane Maria. Cellphone service is still not working at 100% percent capacity. No signal available in some areas. [The carriers] said they were going to credit two months of service towards the bill and when I called today they said no credit due to data usage which makes no sense since we were using the internet from the landline and had to go to the freeway to get a little service. Communication right now in PR is essential to keep us safe. I want what they promised: no payment for September and October since we did not have service.”

Our report Connecting the Dots: The Telecommunications Crisis in Puerto Rico showed how much was unknown about the destruction of communications networks following Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Our report documented how the communications blackout contributed to the unfolding tragedy and loss of life and illustrated how the Trump FCC acted in secrecy and treated Puerto Rico differently than parts of the mainland that had experienced disasters. Our report also raised questions to try to bring light to why this failure in communications occurred and understand the FCC’s role in restoring communications services.

In response to our report, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. wrote a letter on Oct. 3, 2019 to the GAO and requested an investigation into the FCC’s role after Hurricane Maria. The letter listed a series of questions for the GAO to investigate, including:

  • Has the FCC adequately responded to the communications problems in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands following Hurricane Maria? 
  • To the extent the FCC took action, were the actions timely or could the FCC have acted more quickly? 
  • Did the FCC’s response differ from the agency’s response to hurricanes that hit the U.S. mainland?

Now in May 2021 — nearly four years after the storm — we’ve made progress with the release of the GAO report. But we still don’t have all the answers.

What the GAO found

The GAO report affirmed much of what we already knew: The ability to communicate is a life-and-death issue. The report rightly notes that “[t]he loss of telecommunications in an emergency has cascading detrimental effects on other critical infrastructures due to interdependencies among sectors, including the transportation, medical, and financial sectors.”

And resilient communications networks are key to recovery and rebuilding efforts.

People need to ensure loved ones are safe and can call emergency services, receive emergency alerts and find out where to access emergency food and water supplies. Puerto Ricans felt abandoned after the storm, with little-to-no clarity of when life would return to normal. That’s why we urged the FCC to conduct field hearings and directly reach out and engage with Puerto Ricans on the islands to better inform agency regulations and policies to accelerate recovery efforts at the time.

The first recommendation: The FCC’s emergency role must be clearly defined

The GAO report notes that the “lack of clarity could have contributed to confusion and delays in the hurricane’s aftermath.” However, we already knew that this delay was no mere possibility. FEMA’s report of its own response to Hurricane Maria, released in July 2018, describes how “FEMA and supporting federal agencies struggled to gain situational awareness and assess the status of critical infrastructure, in part due to communications outages[.]”

At a critical time, the government struggled to gather and disseminate important information about what infrastructure and services were available and where to deploy its limited resources — and this struggle surely contributed to delays. The GAO report recommends that the Department of Homeland Security (which includes FEMA) define specific actions for the FCC in its emergency guidance on how to restore communications infrastructure.

The second recommendation: The FCC must be more transparent in its efforts to help restore communications

While the FCC established an internal cross-bureau Hurricane Recovery Task Force soon after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, it was not clear what the task force was doing. Even after we submitted our FOIA request over a year after Hurricane Maria, the FCC was unwilling to share any information regarding the task force’s actions or recommendations.

It should come as no surprise that the GAO report “found that FCC obtained limited public input and that the Hurricane Recovery Task Force’s efforts lacked transparency because FCC had not publicly communicated the task force’s actions or findings.”

While the report confirmed much of what we already knew, what’s important now is what comes next.

Where do we go from here? An FCC investigation & a new playbook 

The GAO report lays the groundwork for the Biden FCC to step into its role as the expert agency in communications and take the lead in restoring communications after a disaster. The FCC should create regulations to ensure our communications infrastructure is more resilient — which is an urgent need in light of the climate crisis.

The agency should also commit to greater transparency with the public to help people know what it’s doing after a disaster strikes. That means incorporating feedback that addresses the needs of the public — not corporations. Here, the FCC must start with the largely unexamined disaster in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.

We urge the Biden FCC and Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel to preserve documents related to its response to Hurricane Maria and expeditiously release relevant documents publicly, as the GAO recommends. These two acts can set in motion an investigation and a full accounting of what happened in Puerto Rico after the storm.

We also agree with Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel that the FCC needs a “new playbook” when it comes to disaster preparedness and recovery — and a playbook that accounts for the impact of the climate crisis. The Biden FCC should propose new rules to ensure the resiliency of our networks — and to prevent a total collapse of communications from ever happening again.

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