In the face of (many) hurricanes, we chronicled our goTenna Mesh disaster recovery mission with All Hands Volunteers to the U.S. Virgin Islands
How do we prepare our communities for the onslaught of hurricanes, tropical storms, and earthquakes that have ravaged so many of us in recent weeks? How do people find shelter, health care, food? How do they communicate and connect with one another to pave the road to recovery? Born from Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath in 2012, goTenna has evolved to solve that last question: goTenna Mesh is engineered to empower people to build their own network – one that won’t collapse with a central point of failure in a storm or quake.
When Hurricane Irma hit the US Virgin Islands and traveled up Florida last week, we mobilized to provide goTenna Mesh devices to All Hands Volunteers, a relief organization that was already providing aid and SOS response to those affected by Hurricane Harvey in Texas. What’s incredible about AHV is that they don’t just come for the media blitz; they spend months, even years in regions affected by disaster to properly rebuild infrastructure and rehabilitate both individual homes and public spaces. I was incredibly proud to do this good work by their side: what follows is my first-person account of deploying to the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma — and ahead of Hurricane Maria.
Day 1: What’s Left
Picking up cars at the airport and hanging mesh. The roads are crazy! Debris and power lines down everywhere. Some of the lines are backed up by solar, so you never know if one is live or not. At least one person was electrocuted in the few days preceding our arrival.
A concrete cistern well was blown onto the road. It was as big as the SUV I was driving. There are no street names in the residential areas. Everyone navigates by landmark and the landmarks were all gone so even locals were sometimes getting lost. Used PIN of the house we stayed at to help navigate with goTenna Mesh.
We have some solar powered lights with us, but otherwise the room we are staying in is dark. No electricity, no running water, no internet and very little cell coverage on the island.
Day 2: Jim
This is the yard in the house we were holed up in. Gnarly situation. There really is no green vegetation still standing on the island, other than grass.
We found out about this older man, Jim, via the handyman (Aaron) that was helping us at the house. Jim is blind, living in a small 10’ x 20’ house. He navigates up to the road via a steep climbing trail that is probably 150 yards long. He has rope to help him navigate and along with his memory of the trail. We got to where Jim’s house was supposed to be and find him cutting his way through intense jungle brush that has blocked his trail…WITH A PAIR OF PRUNING SHEARS! He had no choice: he was down to his last cup of water. Luckily the team we were with – including Aaron, the handyman at the house – was able to get Jim out and get him to a shelter.
I went out along with George, Mike and Jonathan from the All Hands team as a 4-person chainsaw team to clear and rebuild the path from the road to Jim’s House. The picture above is “the path.” We had the pleasure of meeting Jim on his way back to the house – turns out he is a Veteran and a former Olympic Pentathlete!
Throughout the day, we set up Mesh devices as stationary relay nodes. We were probably 1500 feet above sea level at the house and we were able to shoot messages down to the city area below from there. Other coverage was shorter in range from point-to-point due to terrain challenges.
Day 3: Need Supply
It’s hard to really give you a picture of the devastation, but everywhere I went it looked like a bomb went off. The human part of this situation is both sad and uplifting. Water and food drops would happen at places around the island every day at 10:00 am with people lined up like crazy and each drop area would be out of supplies NLT 10:15. Very sad. And at the same time the people are so resilient and nice. It was surreal how “polite” everyone was.
This is the church that will serve as All Hands base of operations in the years to come. The team I came in on is the “rapid response team.” Our job is to get in, assess the needs, start helping where we can and then build supply/logistics and response plans for the team that will come in within the next few weeks. We needed a place that would allow All Hands to house up to 50 volunteers.
Day 4: Up and Out
On Sunday morning we got the news that FEMA said we had to evacuate immediately, due to the track of Maria. The manifest check-in station is above. From the time we were given word to evacuate, we had 90 minutes to pack up our personal stuff, store the work gear, and get down the mountain to the airport.
This is the government chartered flight out. The airstrip is the wild wild west. No working tower so all operations are visual from the cockpit; it doesn’t matter if it’s a large commercial flight like this or a single engine prop plane.
After: A Parallel Network
I left the units with All Hands in Puerto Rico. Every day will be a hodgepodge of options available as far as communication. With Maria blowing through Puerto Rico and the USVI again, cell towers may be non-existent, so Mesh will be their fail-safe.
There is so much hard work still ahead for the people of Texas, Florida, the USVI and Mexico, thankfully aided by All Hands Volunteers. Please take a moment to support the efforts of this extraordinary organization with any donation you can muster: every effort helps!