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WASHINGTON — Five years after Hurricane Maria carved a path of destruction across Puerto Rico, vital infrastructure in the U.S. territory has once again failed. Hurricane Fiona, which passed over the islands on Sunday and Monday, cut off electricity for millions and also knocked out essential telecommunications services in several areas.  

As it has since 2017, Free Press Action is calling on the U.S. government and Congress to prioritize the continuity of vital communications in Puerto Rico and account for repeated failures to provide Puerto Ricans with storm-resilient and lifesaving infrastructure. Free Press Action is also calling on the Federal Communications Commission to exercise its full authority to help everyone on the islands in need of critical telecommunications. 

Since Maria struck, Free Press Action has worked with Puerto Rican allies to hold the FCC and the federal government accountable, releasing a groundbreaking 2019 report documenting the agency's shortcomings and calling on lawmakers to guard against future storm-related failures. Free Press Action also testified before Congress in 2020, asserting that the inability to communicate contributed to the massive death toll following Hurricane Maria, and urging the FCC to investigate all factors that contributed to the longest communications blackout in U.S. history. 

In 2021, the Government Accountability Office released a report condemning the Trump FCC’s protracted attempts to restore communications after Hurricane Maria. The report found that the FCC’s role was not clearly defined and that the agency did not sufficiently engage with the Puerto Ricans on the islands who were most impacted by the devastation. The Biden FCC has taken steps since then, on a bipartisan basis, to make wireless carriers’ previously voluntary commitments on emergency response into mandatory obligations. But many of these steps began too late to have an effect on preparations and recovery efforts for this week’s storm. 

Vanessa Maria Graber, Free Press Action’s News Voices director, said: 

“It’s been five years since one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history left thousands dead, and our federal government — including the FCC — has failed to fully address the many factors that contributed to the collapse of Puerto Rico’s communications networks following Hurricane Maria. 

“That’s unconscionable, especially now, as we're seeing signs of similar failures in the wake of Hurricane Fiona. Millions of people in Puerto Rico are again struggling without access to the essential services they need — such as power, water, cellular service and the wireline connections that feed Wi-Fi access — to survive the consequences of a major storm.

“Free Press Action has repeatedly called attention to the urgent need to investigate the roots of the collapse of communications networks following Maria. We called on Congress to demand answers from the FCC about the 2017 devastation, which led to the loss of life of more than 3,000 Puerto Ricans.

“In light of the ever-worsening climate crisis, we knew that our government needed to do more to prevent a repeat of Maria’s immediate impacts and the months-long outages that followed. We called on the FCC to launch an independent investigation of the communications failures, and to require carriers to put in place more climate-resilient infrastructure and services. 

“There have been some improvements since then. The Biden FCC is making more outage information available to local governments and the public, and doing more to make sure it’s available in Spanish. And this past summer the agency made many voluntary storm-response commitments that wireless carriers had developed into mandatory requirements. But there’s bitter irony in the fact that even those new requirements are not in effect yet, as they wend their way through governmental processes while storms rage and floodwaters rise.

“All in all, it’s deeply troubling how little the FCC has done to use existing information about what went wrong in 2017 to prevent the kinds of failures we’re now seeing again in 2022. The agency’s oversight of telecommunications infrastructure is a matter of life and death during these kinds of crises. 

“We should have learned from what happened following Hurricane Maria and fixed these problems to avoid similar failures of essential utilities. The inability of Puerto Ricans to communicate and have access to reliable power after Maria contributed to the historic death toll. As storms like Fiona become the norm due to the climate crisis, it’s critical that the U.S. government ensure that we build communications networks that can help save lives both on the U.S. mainland and in its territories.”

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