No Phones, No Power: How Boricuas Communicated When Puerto Rico Went Silent After María

Art by Alan Lopez for Remezcla

September 20, 2017 was a defining moment for Puerto Rico. As Hurricane María ravaged the island, it downed power lines and 95 percent of antennas, making communication impossible for many. For days, weeks, and even months, thousands of Puerto Ricans were cut off from each other and the outside world.

As Boricuas found themselves in the midst of this silence, those on the mainland tried to text and call their loved ones – only to hear voicemail recordings or see their messages marked as undelivered on WhatsApp. Hurricane María still battered Puerto Rico when rumors began circulating that communication didn’t exist within the island – a terrifying sign that Hurricane María was bigger than we ever expected. A few weeks before, when Irma hit sister islands in the Caribbean, outlets broke the news that there was no communication with Antigua and Barbuda for 24 hours, which later resulted in 90 percent of the islands’ infrastructure to be wiped out.

I first learned about the rumors on Facebook – where I turned after I failed to contact my relatives in Caguas – on a group called Puerto Rico Maria Updates. At nearly 3 p.m. on Wednesday, September 20 – 10 hours after the eye of the storm passed over Yabucoa – typical forms of communication proved ineffective, so the group started seeing an influx of messages. Worried Puerto Ricans across the diaspora were desperate to find information about their families, but hoped that at the very least, they could learn about the condition of the towns they inhabited. “¿Alguien sabe de Levittown?” or “¿Alguien sabe del barrio Espino en San Lorenzo?” the messages read. Every once in a while, people updated the group with the little information that had come out of Puerto Rico.

Networks from the mainland never went silent, though. Journalists Leyla Santiago (CNN) and David Begnaud (CBS) kept the diaspora informed. But local stations – excluding WAPA Radio – went silent. It was clear, even then, that the emergency would mark a before and after for Puerto Ricans.

In the wake of Hurricane María, Puerto Rico’s communication system felt more reminiscent of the 1920s – a time when TV, radios, and phones were either non-existent or not ubiquitous across the island. In this time and age, we’re not equipped to live as Puerto Ricans did more than 90 years ago, so unsurprisingly, many were unprepared to face this new reality. We can reach for our phones and instantly connect with people thousands of miles away, and we even know – via those three little dots, aka the typing awareness indicator – when the person on the other end is drafting a message. But with television and radio satellites going down and about 80 percent of the island’s landline system affected, these forms of communications suddenly felt tenuous. Cell phones served as a reminder of the futile attempts to find even one bar of signal, and instead became more of a way to track the long hours until things were back to normal.

Although networks from the mainland covered the hurricane nonstop those first few days, it didn’t do much to connect people inside and outside of the island to each other. The government, for example, couldn’t make contact will all 78 municipalities until Monday, five days after the storm hit. The communication failure on the island led to a national emergency that many still consider one of the main causes of the nearly 3,000 deaths credited to Hurricane María, only second to the loss of its power grid for nearly a year. Without communications, banks couldn’t function, gasoline couldn’t be delivered, people couldn’t call 911, and the government remained isolated from the reality of its own people.

For weeks, only some bubbles around the island, specifically the northern side, had cell phone reception, sending Puerto Ricans into a desperate attempt to contact their families by lining the side of the highway for hours trying to get service. People were forced to get creative, because lives depended on it and the traditional forms of communications were unreliable. Word of mouth and social media became the main sources of information.

But then there were also some that went above and beyond to make sure Puerto Ricans were informed. In San Juan, the area of Hato Rey never lost reception, which led resident Zuania Capó to become an envoy between Puerto Ricans in other parts of the island and the diaspora. But as others continued to struggle to communicate, they found refuge in the Facebook group Puerto Rico María Updates – created by Patricia Pichardo – which gained more than 20,000 members in one day, and the app Zello, where Puerto Ricans in and out of the island – such as Vanessa Beltrán – stayed connected through its walkie-talkie-like service.

A year later, the three women reflect on the day Puerto Rico went silent and the spaces boricuas created to save lives and connect against all odds. Here are their stories.

As told to Frances Solá-Santiago.

I live in Hato Rey, and somehow we never lost reception. We were in a small bubble. We didn’t have it all the time, but sometimes, we even got data. When I noticed we had reception, I started reporting what was going on around me in Hato Rey. That’s when I realized that people in the diaspora were asking questions about the island. I wasn’t having any internal communication; it was all external. I realized no one could communicate with their families – not even myself. I started using social media to see if I could connect with someone in my hometown Manatí, but there was nothing. I told my husband we should leave our baby with my mom, who was with us in Hato Rey, and drive to Manatí. This was two days later. Once I got there, I found my family relatively well, given the fact that they were all without power or water. But they were all fine. I took some videos to show my relatives in the United States. Right after, my husband and I decided to walk around the community to do the same with other families. We asked people for the phone numbers and names of their relatives they wanted to contact in the US. Of course, we had to be careful because we didn’t have power either so we only reported as far as our phone battery would let us. But I promised everyone I’d contact their family members once I got to San Juan and had reception again.

It was very difficult. First of all, the fact that someone even showed up to the community was shocking to them. At that point, the hurricane had passed like two or three days before, and the community was completely underwater. When they realized there was someone who could communicate with their families, they got very emotional. The majority were elderly that were also in charge of their families and kids, so they were very tired. I still think about those faces.

Once we came back to San Juan, we started calling all their family members. I think about those calls and I get very emotional. It was a gift that we were able to give [something] that wasn’t material but meant so much. The families would give us la bendición without even meeting us. They were very beautiful interactions because the families in the US now knew if their relatives were alive, if they needed anything, if they had to buy them a plane ticket. We focused on the diaspora because we knew that the people in the island didn’t have any phone service. Still, if we got a number from Puerto Rico, we’d leave a voicemail, so they could see it when they got reception back.

We did like four trips to other towns before Univision contacted us. I’m in media, but I’m not a reporter. Still, they had a team on the island that had also realized the main issue was just connection. No one could reach their families. What they did was create a website with updates from each town in Puerto Rico. They were sending reporters to various towns to look for specific families they had gotten tips about. They reached out to us, and we said that we only asked for gasoline to make the trips. With that gasoline, we made trips to the west – Rincón, Isabela, Barceloneta, and Manatí. We had specific addresses from families in the diaspora who wanted to find information about their relatives. That was unforgettable. We saw people with even more necessities, people who lost everything, that were literally taking everything out of their homes to throw it away. People were mopping and sweeping the mud from their houses with no water. That’s when we realized that this hurricane had been bigger than anything we’d ever seen before.

It didn’t just impact low-income communities. Everyone lost something that day. I tried controlling my emotions because these people were going through something even more difficult than I was. But even now, when I go to my family’s community in Manatí, they say, “I’ll never forget your face. You were the first one who came here.” I think communication is so intrinsic for humans. We’ll always find a way to communicate. -Zuania Capó, media consultant

I was in Georgia when the hurricane happened, but my family was in Puerto Rico. My sister lives in Caguas, but she stayed in Cayey with her in-laws. I talked to her on Tuesday at midnight and I later fell asleep. I woke up around 5 a.m. It wasn’t my intention to fall asleep. She called me again around that time, and when I tried to text her right after, the message did not go through. I got scared because one thing is that she didn’t see the message because she had no power or because she turned the phone off and another was that WhatsApp did not deliver the message. That’s when I knew there was something wrong. I got on Facebook to see [Hato Rey-based meteorologist] Ada Monzón’s 5 a.m. live stream, and she didn’t say anything about the cell phone signal or the towns where my family was. I looked at the news, but it was only the typical American reporter with the rain jacket saying everything was flying around and that it was raining. But that wasn’t enough.

I went to Facebook again and got some updates from friends and family in Caguas. I got really scared and started reading every post I could find about the hurricane. One of my friends was looking for updates on her parents in Juncos, and someone commented that they hadn’t heard [updated on] Juncos but that Cayey was OK, and no dead were reported so far. That’s when I realized we needed something to group all updates and have it be searchable. Otherwise, we’d have to look into our friends’ posts to see if someone commented and so on. That’s how I got the idea of the Facebook group. I created it around 9 a.m. and shared it with friends as I was getting ready to go to work. I put some ad money on a post to spread the Facebook group and linked it to an official Facebook page. Around 20,000 people joined on the first day.

The group changed as the days went by. First, it was all about trying to get updates about Puerto Rico. Little by little, after we knew Puerto Rico still existed, we started sharing updates from the government. One of the first things that happened that night was that there were families in Levittown [Toa Baja] that took refuge on their roofs after the dam failed and the community flooded. Multiple people posted on the group about their relatives being trapped on the roof and then someone messaged me on Facebook saying he was a helicopter pilot, and I responded saying those people needed help. He was able to rescue some families because of that.

Art by Alan López for Remezcla

At first, we were very against people posting about politics. But the updates we have gotten in the last few months have a lot to do with politics. For example, whenever Donald Trump tweets about Puerto Rico, people share it on the group. It’s become a social club of people who are interested in what’s going on with the island. It’s actually quite objective, unlike some networks in the island. It’s not like going to the 2 [Telemundo] and see the news in favor of X-party or the 4 [WAPA] and hear from the other party. It’s a huge variety of people sharing their perspectives. There are still a lot of people that participate today, around 3,000 active members per day.

The reality is that I thought everything would be fine when María hit. I think we all – including the government – underestimated the situation and overestimated Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. When Irma hit, the president of the AEE [power company] said it could take three to six months to get power back. I remember we all thought he was exaggerating, but I know people that were without power for nine months. We don’t want to close the group because there can be another emergency like this one and amassing 233,000 people again would be tough. Right now, a tropical storm is enough to wipe out Puerto Rico’s power again and we can also lose cell phone signal. We prefer running the group than closing it. If something happens, people have a place to go to for updates. –Patricia Pichardo, creator of Facebook group Puerto Rico María Updates

I was an admin on the Puerto Rico María Updates Facebook page and spent the hurricane in Clermont, Florida. We were translating news stories and sharing updates with the members. My cousins had actually downloaded Zello before the hurricane as a precaution, just in case they could use it as a communication method. I also downloaded it and made it my task to communicate with people inside and outside of the island through there after the hurricane. Zello works as a walkie-talkie. You choose a specific channel and you can communicate with everyone that’s connected at that time. At that moment, everyone was so desperate that it was difficult to talk to each other. But it wasn’t impossible. Each moderator [in the Facebook group] focused on various towns, so I searched channels that were related between them and shared information on the Facebook group.

Art by Alan López for Remezcla

I used the app to obtain information about the situations of other towns and get relevant facts about what was going on, like if any bridges had fallen or roads closed. That’s how we were able to update people in the app that we had a Facebook group that was looking out after them and help each other. You’d hear so many stories on Zello. There were people that’d let you know the status of roads and alternate routes you could take, places to get gasoline, food, and medicine. The most painful thing was hearing people asking desperately for information on their family members. That was very impactful, especially because I spent about a week or two without being able to communicate with my family. But I was also able to connect people with their families in other towns. Some people sent pictures so I could share it on the group and verify their families were okay.

Puerto Rico was definitely not prepared for what happened. But I also think no country is ever prepared for something so big as María was. I do think we can take some steps to assure something like that doesn’t happen again, especially in terms of communication. The disaster was massive, but I think communication is essential in the island and with the diaspora in such an emergency. Zello was really a ray of light in the midst of desperation, but it also showed the kindness people have with each other and how they can be of help to each other. Even a year after, these memories are very painful. -Vanessa Beltrán, active Zello user after Hurricane María