This week, I accompanied Betzalel Kenigsztein, President LiLAC and John Reid, CEO Cable & Wireless on a trip to inspect the damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico. As our flight descended, we could immediately see the impact on the ground, with over-flowing rivers flooding surrounding land and damaged buildings dotted across the hillside. We arrived at the airport in San Juan and could feel the sense of crisis, with US marines passing through the arrivals hall and families and elderly citizens waiting in departures for a flight to evacuate. We met our Cable & Wireless colleagues and offloaded our humanitarian supplies and equipment so that they could distribute them. Then we met our Liberty Puerto Rico colleagues who guided us to a bus so that we could tour the East of the island.
As we left the airport, we saw hundreds of bare, brown tree trunks that were either on the ground or tilting at an angle as if they were about to fall. Hurricane Maria had brought salt water from the sea and ‘scorched’ the trees so that they were stripped of all leaves and foliage. We also saw a solar power farm with severe damage, as well as mangled wind turbines that had been damaged by the sheer force of the wind. (According to some reports, Hurricane Maria reached a sustained speed of 175 mph, with gusts of 225 mph). As we passed through the mountains we saw rural areas with extreme damage – houses with walls missing, pieces of roof that had blown off into the street and electrical cables that were strewn across the road.
The traffic was busier than we thought it would be, with roads having been cleared and people on the hunt for a gas station with supplies. We saw several Burger King restaurants open for business and a packed car park at the newly reopened mall. At the side of the freeway, hundreds of cars were parked up with people inside them. A curious sight, but we soon learned that it was because the freeway was one of the few places with decent mobile coverage that people could use to contact family or access the Internet.
Talking with the Liberty Puerto Rico leadership team, we heard about several employees who had hidden in their bathroom during the storm and the sense of terror as wind entered the gaps in the walls and started to move furniture around inside the house. But we also sensed high spirits, great optimism and a very strong sense of teamship. They have a good knowledge of the areas of our network that are most impacted and have reorgnised themselves for the recovery effort. We were relieved to hear the brilliant news during our trip that 100% of our employees had been accounted for, although we also learned of employees with severely damaged homes and the emotional impact on much of the workforce. The biggest challenge in Puerto Rico is (and will continue to be) the lack of electricity. There are a lucky few with generators but the majority of people will be living in hot conditions without air conditioning, a working refrigerator or any way of charging their cell phone for several months to come.
We visited the office in Luquillo, a site that had been seriously flooded. During the storm, a heroic team of employees managed to extract water from the building through a make-shift hose and a lot of hard work scooping up water with buckets. This saved some of the critical telecoms equipment needed to operate the network. The site was almost ready to re-open and welcome our teams back, many of whom will be redeployed from their regular day jobs to focus resource on the most important hurricane recovery tasks. Outside of the office, members of the public bustled around the front door, hoping to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi hotspot set up by the team. We saw the Hurricane Irma ‘war room’, which had been set up to restore the network following the first storm but was then abandoned when preparations for Hurricane Maria became more important. Ironically, straight after Hurricane Irma the Liberty Puerto Rico team had been one of the first to offer up manpower and supplies to the affected areas on the British Virgin Islands in their sister company, Cable & Wireless. Now that generosity will be returned.
There is no step-by-step guide on how to recover from a Category 5 Hurricane. However, the people of Puerto Rico continue to smile through their daily troubles and talk of a better day when all of this will be behind them. The positive spirit of the Liberty Puerto Rico team was utterly inspiring – they know what they have to do, they are full of pragmatic ideas to make improvements quickly and they are 100% focused on reconnecting communities by restoring our network. I am proud to have them as colleagues. Today and from this moment onwards, Yo soy Liberty (I am Liberty).