International Day for Disaster Reduction: Industry response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria

October 13, 2017 | Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation | Latin America & the Caribbean | Dulip Tillekeratne

Annually on 13th October, the International Day for Disaster Reduction, we reflect on the need for enhanced resilience and preparedness around the world.

This year, just weeks after we have witnessed the destructive power of two of the Hurricanes on record, the message carries an added weight. Hurricane Irma, sustained wind speeds of 185mph for 37 hours in total, the longest period at this speed for any cyclone on record worldwide. Hurricane Maria, with lower speeds but higher pressure (175 mph (280 km/h) and a pressure of 908 mbar) became the tenth-most intense Atlantic hurricane on record. To make matters worse, they travelled along almost the same trajectory and within a matter of days of one another, with several countries feeling the force of both.

Impact has varied by country, but thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes, and many more remain without access to power or clean drinking water. In some countries more than 90% of built structures have been damaged or totally destroyed. The number of people who tragically lost their lives remain in the low hundreds, although concerns remain about the potential for secondary risks to emerge, such as cholera outbreaks.

We have seen examples of incredible human resilience in the face of suffering. And we have seen, as expected, the importance that is placed on connectivity and access to communication and information in times of crisis. Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria have created unprecedented challenges for Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and humanitarians alike. Rarely have response and restoration efforts been required over such a large area, spanning so many countries, states and territories. At least 12 MNOs were impacted in the region, with damage sustained to 95% of the networks in some countries.

Barbuda, St. Martin, Dominica and Puerto Rico were among the most damaged islands, experiencing  total blackouts in both network and power. With neighbouring countries impacted, it was difficult for support to be provided in the region, and logistics have been a continuous challenge for both MNOs and humanitarian organisations.

The GSMA Disaster Response programme, supported by GSMA colleagues in our North America and LatAm Regional Offices, has been working with our members and humanitarian partners to support collaborative response activities where possible. These have ranged from requests for support in finding spare network equipment, to arranging for urgent logistical support to enable the dispatch of engineers in affected countries.


Examples of MNO-led activities:

MNOs, although facing extreme challenges with their networks, instigated numerous activities to support their customers where and when possible. Some of the initiatives taken included:

  • Zero-rated SMS and calls – numerous MNOs in the region (and in other countries such as the USA) zero-rated communications to allow affected populations and their loved ones to connect
  • Prioritising of key facilities including hospitals and coordination centres to ensure restoration of network connectivity as soon as possible
  • Provision of charging facilities at key locations to enable those without power to charge their devices
  • Roll out of wifi hotspots and Cells on wheels (COWs) to provide emergency connectivity in shelters and key locations
  • Zero-rating of mobile internet to enable access to information services
  • Launching of messaging systems to support the re-connection of family/friends with those in areas where connectivity has been down


The GSMA teams have continued to be in touch with MNOs in the region as they undertake restoration efforts. When and where support has been required we have been able to undertake the following activities:

  • Working with partners in the UK to source technical equipment from UK MNOs. This has been carried out by staff of the impacted operators traveling to the region
  • Continued close collaboration with the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster to share information and coordinate requests between the humanitarian sector and the mobile industry
  • Attempts to facilitate logistics support where spare capacity exists on response transport to ensure that equipment and engineers can reach restoration sites
  • Connecting and driving collaboration opportunities between MNOs and other potential partners in affected islands. NetHope, a collaboration between non-profits and innovative companies to deliver information technology solutions in times of disaster and crisis, set up temporary connectivity for communities in impacted islands. Digicel Group and the MNOs in Puerto Rico worked alongside NetHope team to ensure these efforts were synchronised.


Engagement with the Humanitarian sector

We thank our partners in the humanitarian sector for the work that they are doing across the impacted region to support response and recovery, particularly where they are engaged to support local MNOs across connectivity restoration. In particular, we thank the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (working under the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency’s (CDEMA) lead), Ericsson Response, NetHope and Telecom Sans Frontieres.


Whilst restoration efforts continue, attention is gradually turning to long-term recovery. There is a long road ahead for the communities impacted by Irma and Maria in the Caribbean. It is essential, as we reflect on International Day for Disaster Reduction which “encourages every individual, community and government to take part in building more disaster resilient communities and nations” that efforts are taken to build back better in the region, using this as an opportunity to enhance resilience and response capacity.

Connectivity will play an important role in building this resilience. The GSMA will continue to work with our members in the region to highlight learnings that have emerged from these disasters, to support ongoing restoration activities and to strengthen capacity for future events.


Further updates and examples of emergency telecommunications activities carried out by the MNOs can be found on their respective websites.


The Disaster Response programme is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and supported by the GSMA and its members.

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