Amidst a communications blackout, citizens turn to social media to find information

by | Sep 21, 2017 | Puerto Rico, United States Virgin Islands | Comments

With all of Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands under an electric and communications blackout, citizens living in the mainland US and abroad have turned to Facebook, Twitter, and Google Spreadsheets to gather and share information about the situation in the territories. Not long after Hurricane Maria began affecting both territories, most cell phone towers stopped working, plunging the general population into informational isolation.

On Facebook, Live videos were used to show the devastation across the metropolitan area of San Juan, which is so far the only one to have some sort of communication outside of Puerto Rico. The south and western part of the main island are still in the dark, with barely any information about the conditions in the towns located in those areas.

Users flocked to a Facebook group called ‘Puerto Rico Maria Updates‘, where pictures, questions and videos are posted about the situation around the 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico. The tool served as a relief, albeit a messy and sometimes disorganized one, for people to find information. At the time of publishing there was no official source of information providing updates, leaving the chance for false information to pop up in feeds.

Another app that has been in wide use for the emergency is Zello, a walkie talkie app for smartphones that allows users to join channels. Searching for ‘maria’ you can find several channels labeled by municipality, where individuals where providing information on the situation for specific sectors and neighborhoods in each town. In the ‘Huracan Maria PR Mayagüez’ channel, a user called Raquel was providing information for the municipalities of Mayagüez, Añasco, and Cabo Rojo.

For the US Virgin Islands, a Facebook Group called ‘What’s going on St. John, US Virgin Islands‘, while set up previously as an “activity information booth,” was serving a similar purpose as family members desperately tried to learn about the status of their loved ones.

Additional efforts include a page and database by the name of WhatzHappening, which sought to compile all information from the municipalities in Puerto Rico in one place, to then be distributed on Facebook. Startups of Puerto Rico also sought out to organize itself, opening a #maria channel on its Slack workspace, which has seen many from the tech sector organize initiatives, including the rumored possibility of Google deploying its Loon project to provide internet in Puerto Rico.

For now, information is scarce, especially from areas far from San Juan, as well as the Puerto Rico island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra, and all islands of the USVI. Rumors on social media point to the US military arriving Saturday to begin fixing the electric grid in Puerto Rico, with mobile cell towers being deployed in areas like Aguadilla. If true, that might be the earliest chance many will get to communicate with their family and friends in Puerto Rico.