Why build hope...?

A project log for PR-Holonet: Disaster Area Emergency Comms

An easy to build, setup, and use emergency communicator for disaster-struck zones with no working power or comms infrastructure.

inventive.prototypesinventive.prototypes 04/20/2018 at 03:410 Comments

It took 1.5 months to learn anything about my dad. It took 2.5 months to finally hear him live over the phone. There is a difference between not having the chance to call your family, and not being able to and not knowing if you will be able to. 

I want this project to focus on the good it is able to do. I want this project to grow on the experiences of how it gets to help people. I will focus all other posts on the system, how it works and how to use it. But in this one post I'll try to explain why I'm doing it. 

This post will not be technical, and you are definitely welcome to skip it.

Growing up with hurricanes has taught me to be respectful of them. They are not an experience I wish on anyone. 

I helped my dad during hurricane Irma, he had to travel to Puerto Rico and I helped with his house stateside. It was a tense situation to be in. Hurricanes are not trivial events. We prepared both houses, him in Puerto Rico with my grandmother and aunt and me with my sisters. Thankfully our family was blessed. Irma for the most part missed Puerto Rico. Key West was not so lucky. After Irma, I thought that had been it. That was the second big one for the season, Harvey had hit Houston a few days before. I thought, "Well 2 in one season should be it for the year".

A week later Maria shows up. Puerto Rico is lucky in the sense that more often than not the really bad hurricanes seem to miss the island by going a bit too high or too low for a direct hit. But Maria filled me with dread. A week after watching how Irma created a temporary Venice in Miami, here was a Cat 5 hurricane, getting ready to run straight through Puerto Rico. A week and a half after Irma barely missed Puerto Rico, the Island was swept.

I do not know that I can explain what it felt like. When something bad happens in Puerto Rico, you complain, loudly more often than not. Then you roll your sleeves up and get to work fixing it because at the end of the day, "no one will do stuff for you". You have to own your stuff. After Maria I hoped to hear that complaining, the usual blames being thrown, the ones that sadly are the indicatives of efforts being put together to fix the Island up as well as possible again. 

Puerto Ricans are loud. And happy. We talk a lot. Sometimes more than we should, heh. I was hoping to hear that loudness, even if it was just complaining. It means things are bad, but never so bad you don't have the time to complain. As we say in Puerto Rico, "it could have been worse". I wished that to be the best case scenario.

After Maria though... Nothing. 1.5 months of nothing. Deafening. Exasperating. Nothingness. The same way one recognizes the seriousness of a conversation with a family member, or a partner, or a friend by the abundance of words not being said, this was 3.4 million people worth of muted voices. During the first week, there was no power, no potable water, no communication, no gas/petrol infrastructure, no roads, no grocery stores, and for a lot of people no home. And then for the next one, and the next one, and the next... 6 months out the electrical grid is still not stable or fully operational. I understand that there are multiple factors that led to this point. But the fact that this is even a thing, that recovery has not been possible as the next hurricane season comes up, speaks volumes about the situation, its magnitude and scale. I do not mean to trivialize the work of the first responders, government officials, and volunteers who have genuinely done their utmost to help. To those who have done everything within their purview. Thank you. But this was and is a very daunting situation, of humanitarian crisis scale even. 

A couple friends snapped me out of the stupor caused by Maria early on. We immediately started connecting with other Puertorricans to figure out how best to help. Doing collection drives for food and basic need articles. Digging through our networks to learn about needs in the Island. Finding truck drivers, pilots, people who worked at airlines that could donate baggage space, people who could donate truck containers to ship all the collected help, local airline owners who could donate flights, ships to take the containers to Puerto Rico; all to bring relief and to make sure it got to where it was intended. With notes on the actual stuff letting people in the Island know that we care, that we don't forget, and that we love them. The need to do something about the situation created new friendships and connections. In the end you had people of all professions, joking that without intending to we became transportation, shipping, and logistics experts. If you pick up on my mentioning of us joking about it, it's because it's another Puertorrican thing. In the face of adversity you can cry in frustration or crack a joke and move on. Puertorricans joke a lot. 

If Maria has taught me anything it is that as individuals we are small, but although we may feel like it, we are not impotent. It has taught me that hope is a shared sentiment that creates bonds between persons. And that those bonds enable them to surmount challenges together. Whether that is trying to transport 5,000 pounds of medical supplies. Or flying VSAT equipment to Vieques, an island town off the coast of Puerto Rico. Or trusting the initial PR-Holonet proof of concept to a new friend you've known ony for 24 hours at a hackathon on the other side of the country because he wants to help. I've seen all sorts of people who had never met, work together with a common hope and burning desire to make things better. For their families and the families of those they just met. 

As daunting as this whole experience has been, I've been lucky enough to meet an amazingly wonderful set of people I now have the honor to call friends. I co-founded a group called Puerto Rico Stands with them to provide relief to an amazing and inspiring community called Mana in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. This community has an awesome group of leaders who against all odds and with boundless amounts of hope has worked hard to recover and help others recover. 

I know my situation is not unique. Many have gone through this. Many more will, still. It could have been worse. But this was my time to learn from this experience. And I learned that against the most daunting challenges the hopes of many, when acted on, become the base of a better future. They help discover strengths you were unaware of.

I came up with the idea for PR-Holonet because in an age known for communications, I refuse to believe and allow people's lives to be in peril due to a lack of comms infrastructure. This should not happen in the US. This should not be happening in the world. Period.

This is my grain of sand to help with the future Irmas in Key West, Harveys in Houston, or Marias in Puerto Rico. This is my best effort to plant the seed of an accessible communications systems that isolates the tool for relief, communication, from the zone of the disaster. And also, hopefully, a seed for getting the most important factor in relief involved, the people who were there in the first place.

Acting on shared hope unites people facing risks with unknown outcomes. It makes you and those around you better. It makes all of us stronger.

Let's. Build. Hope.

This lady is my 98 year old grandmother. She is a rock and my hero. You will not catch her complaining. Ever. And you will never leave her house hungry. Not even after 6 months out with no power. She and my dad have taught me to work hard and fight for what I believe. And I try my best to do it.