As the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season has just begun, we continue to reflect on the impact of the 2017 hurricanes in the Caribbean. The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the worst ever recorded, causing widespread destruction, loss of life and long-term economic damage to multiple Caribbean small island states. Governments, industries and communities continue to recover more than nine months after Category 5 Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit multiple islands in quick succession. The telecommunications industry felt the force of the hurricanes to varying degrees across their operating countries, with a number of mobile network operators (MNOs) experiencing unprecedented impact.
Our recent report The 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season: Mobile industry impact and response in the Caribbean captures some of the key ways GSMA members and their partners responded to Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Caribbean, from before the storms made landfall to the clean-up and restoration efforts. Using first-hand interviews and secondary resources, we have identified the major challenges MNOs faced in preparing and responding to the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, and highlighted best practices and innovative approaches. The report also draws on lessons learned to provide recommendations for other GSMA members operating in climate-vulnerable small island states, where natural disasters are only likely to increase in intensity with climate change.
The following key takeaways provide an opportunity for the wider mobile industry, particularly in other small island states, and interested stakeholders, to learn from the successes and challenges experienced and consider these against their own preparedness and emergency response plans:
- Fifty per cent of MNOs in the Caribbean were directly impacted and some OpCos experienced over 95 per cent damage to infrastructure across several markets.
- In the worst-affected countries, Hurricanes Irma and/or Maria impacted every part of MNO operations.
- Challenging geography, transportation disruptions and extreme weather hampered restoration efforts.
- A huge amount of telecommunications equipment suffered irreparable damage, requiring equipment to be imported and experienced emergency personnel to be deployed.
- Hundreds of staff in market were directly affected by the hurricanes and hundreds more were deployed from the region and farther afield.
- The overriding challenge faced was reliance on power grids that were completely destroyed in some areas, resulting in huge expense for MNOs.
- Nearly 60 per cent of people in the Caribbean subscribe to a mobile service, relying on their mobile phones to access essential information and communication services, which proved to be an important lifeline during the hurricane season.
- The destructive force of Hurricanes Irma and Maria exposed gaps in stakeholder coordination and communication, and highlighted multiple interdependencies.
These experiences provide an opportunity for MNOs and key stakeholders to consider whether their own infrastructure, networks and processes are resilient and robust enough to withstand the intensity and frequency of natural disasters commensurate with the increasing risks due to climate change. For MNOs in high-risk regions, reassessing investment priorities will not only be vital to protect business assets but also to provide a communication lifeline for vulnerable communities in their operating regions.
Under our Humanitarian Connectivity Charter, we are convening the MNOs in the Caribbean region for a preparedness workshop in the coming weeks. We hope to assess what worked and didn’t work last year and how the industry has prepared for this hurricane season while understanding what different partners are doing in the region to enable more fluid collaboration opportunities responding to crisis situations.