Communications Satellites: Helping Lift the Fog of Disaster

By |2019-07-02T18:56:42+00:00May 21st, 2019|0 Comments
American Red Cross

We often hear that there are three basic requirements for people to live:  Food, water and shelter.  I think there is a fourth requirement that becomes acute following a disaster:  The need to know what happened to a loved one.  It is not overstating matters to write that this basic human need can be met by something thousands of miles away:  A communications satellite.

I was first introduced to this fourth basic requirement when I worked for the American Red Cross and over a million Americans were chaotically evacuated in response to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.  In the chaos, families were separated and many lost contact with loved ones.  In response to the disaster, the American Red Cross established a toll free phone number and an online tool which people could use to find missing loved ones who had registered with the American Red Cross or enable those evacuated to register with simple “I am alive and here is where I am” messages.  The anxiety of callers seeking loved ones was palpable as was the relief and thanks when callers were told that their loved one was alive.   This phenomenon occurs many times following disasters but was perhaps most clearly brought into focus for me following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti which took hundreds of thousands of lives.  In this case, I was able to see the relief wash over the face of a survivor as she used a satellite phone to call a loved one and tell them that they were alive.  

How was such a call made possible following the cataclysmic earthquake? Satellites.  In this case, Iridium satellites circling hundreds of miles above earth.

Other examples of the role played by communications satellites following a disaster abound . . . 

Following the 2014 Nepal earthquake, satellites thousands of miles above the earth enabled doctors in Nepal to conduct telemedicine with colleagues in Japan.

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International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

Satellite links enabled those responding to 2017’s Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico to communicate with headquarters to assess needs, order relief supplies, coordinate with other responders, and enable those affected by the hurricane to utilize mobile hotspots to call loved ones and tell them that they were alive.

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American Red Cross

Communication satellites play a recurring and significant role following a natural disaster for several reasons.

While earth bound telecommunications networks like cables and cell towers are robust, they are not immune to the effects of tornados, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, wars, and other disasters.  And when they are destroyed, it may prove difficult to impossible to quickly repair destroyed cables and deploy replacement cell towers when roads are blocked, bridges are destroyed, and airlift capability is in short supply.  In contrast, when a disaster strikes on earth, the satellite in space is unaffected which leaves just the need to deploy lightweight antennas that can be broken into components that can be hand-carried . . . . literally up steep mountainsides as occurred following the Nepal earthquake.