Power of Cross-Sector Collaboration for Economic Recovery in Disaster Response

By |2022-05-24T20:14:10+00:00June 19th, 2019|0 Comments

Satellite communications facilitates connectivity in remote communities.

Effective disaster response requires expertise across a wide range of sectors. How various sectors interact and exchange information can be critical to a positive outcome. Often, each sector having operated within its own domain, has limited visibility into other sectors until reporting out to senior leadership. This often results in excellent work within a narrow “silo” of that domain, but leaves room for improvement in the overall picture, helping the communities impacted by a disaster. 

FEMA has recently incorporated “community lifelines” into their National Response Framework. These community lifelines seek to improve the efficacy of work done within the sectors by ensuring a purposeful connection to the benefit of the impacted communities. 


Figure 1: FEMA’s Community Lifelines 

FEMA’s seven community lifelines also makes it easier to exchange information across domains. The response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico demonstrates the importance of effective collaboration and quick information exchange across domains.

In the early response efforts, government and non-profit organizations worked to support the distribution of food and water into communities impacted by the storm. It might seem simple to determine whether a community has access to food and water, but the reality is more complicated.

 Following the hurricane, local infrastructure was left devastated. ATMs were out of commission and point of sale (POS) terminals in stores could not process credit cards or food stamp (EBT) card transactions. Even though many community grocery stores were stocked with food and water and generators to keep perishables refrigerated, members of their community were unable to purchase supplies. As a result, these people were supported by government and non-profit aid distributions.


Figure 2: Photo by Staff Sgt. Elvis Umanzor; (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/3825485/fema-dod-coordinate-food-water-distribution-juana-diaz-puerto-rico)

Small business owners stood watching from their stores as their customers visited distribution centers to collect the very supplies that filled their shelves. We met with the owner of a grocery store on Culebra. He had to watch as his customers lined up at city hall to collect aid from government and non-profit organizations.


Figure 3: Photo by Steve Birnbaum; Contents of the grocery store Colmado Milka on the island of Culebra after Hurricane Maria that customers were unable to purchase.

Seen through a narrow lens, the aid distribution was effective at providing access to supplies. When the perspective widens across community lifelines, the negative impacts over time become apparent: perishables are at risk of spoiling, business owners lose revenue at a time when they need it most and employee salaries go unpaid causing a cascading impact for many more families. The longer this continues, the longer it will take to restore local economic activity and stability.

During previous disaster recovery efforts, food and water distribution would continue parallel to economic recovery. Eventually, both would achieve their objectives, albeit independently. The food and water sector would see the problem as a lack of available food. The communications sector would see a general lack of communications. Seen collectively, this becomes a single, inter-dependent challenge. It becomes a food and water problem because of poor communication.

In order to help address this challenge, I had the opportunity to help build a collaborative effort that involved all levels of government, private sector and non-profit organizations to address this challenge. With the collaborative participation of the CIO of the Government of Puerto Rico, the Department of Family Affairs, FEMA, Tactivate, Focused Mission and the Foundation for Puerto Rico, we embraced an entrepreneurial spirit that helped restore economic activity and enabled communities to solve their own supply challenges. In doing so, the need for continued supply distribution was reduced or eliminated in these communities.

Knowing it would take time to restore mobile networks in the worst-hit regions of the island we reduced the size of the technical problem, focusing only on connectivity for POS/EBT terminals. POS terminals require very little bandwidth to process transactions, making the problem easier to solve.

Given the remoteness of the communities we were targeting and the island’s topography, we opted to use satellite communications for connectivity. We made use of satellite-based products designed for low-bandwidth IOT, also known as machine-to-machine communications. The terminals we deployed cost a modest $1,500 each and could be quickly installed Within minutes of installation, stores were able to accept credit and EBT cards, allowing customers to purchase much-needed supplies.