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Coamo Finds Connection in Isolation
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Coamo Finds Connection in Isolation

An hour and a half drive south of San Juan, Joel Thomas operates Coamo Satellite Service, a local retailer that offers DISH TV and HughesNet® Gen5 services to local businesses and residents. According to Joel, soon after the hurricane left and the rain subsided, it was clear to him that no one on the island escaped the storm without damaged property or injury from the storm.

Speaking over a congested cellular signal, the exhaustion was evident in Joel’s voice. “The wind blew so hard the leaves that blew off the trees were stuck to the side of my house and my car so bad that they could only be scraped off using sharp tools.”

Joel also spoke of a number of issues they are still facing a month after the storm. He started with water shortages. “There are three kinds of water here. There’s public water, rain water and drinking water. There’s no access for us right now to public water so we had to put all our pots, pans, anything we can find, outside to collect rainwater so we can bathe and use the toilets.” He added, “Then there’s drinking water. That is the hardest of the three to find.”

According to Joel, every time a shipment of water bottles arrives, it’s announced on local radio stations which leads to rapidly forming lines of people who are limited to only one or two bottles each. “There is plenty of soda and other soft drinks [if you have cash] but we need just water right now and it’s still hard to get.”

Joel made the 1.5 hour drive to San Juan to try and find a cellular signal so he could communicate with family outside of Puerto Rico and he noticed one thing in particular as he went to different businesses and stores. “It really hit the poor people the worst because some years ago they moved from using food coupons to debit cards. It sounded like a good idea but now that there is no power, you can’t purchase anything or take out cash from an ATM. I’m glad I took out a cash withdrawal before the storm because it would be very hard to do anything without cash right now.”

A month removed from the storm, it’s currently estimated that 80% of the island is still without power. There are stores and businesses that are able to operate on generators but they can be difficult to get to for the people who don’t live near the bigger cities where businesses are slowly becoming operational again. Roads and bridges are still damaged or blocked by heavy debris. This makes for extremely difficult terrain to navigate in the rural mountainous regions given the extreme levels of recent rainfall.

With no power and extensive damage to infrastructure, it means that almost all communications are down. No cellular signal. No landline dial tone. Joel spoke to how isolating it felt not being able to reach anyone on the island or back in the U.S. “I couldn’t reach my family on the island or in the states to tell them I was O.K. or to see if they were O.K. Luckily I went to Home Depot before the storm and bought a couple 2-way radios for my father-in-law so I can keep in contact with him.”

When Joel got back to his business, he fired up his generator to power the essentials, which he said included a HughesNet Gen5 terminal giving him and his co-workers Wi-Fi. He and the other employees used the terminal to check in with family and friends. Soon the word got out that there was Wi-Fi in his showroom and people came from all around the community to re-connect with the world outside of the island. “We didn’t have VoIP pre-configured so we had to get creative.” Joel and the others used a mobile messaging application called WhatsApp™ which allows those with the app to make voice calls over Wi-Fi. “Watching friends, co-workers and strangers hear the voices of their families for the first time since the storm was very emotional, added Joel. “Everyone was in tears.”

The local 1450 radio station in Coamo has been a daily visitor to Joel’s showroom. They’re using the Internet to try and keep awareness levels high on what’s happening around the island by leveraging the Wi-Fi to update their social media accounts. Now that Joel’s shop is starting to receive shipments from outside of the island again, he is delivering satellite terminals to various local businesses, including about 50 supermarkets, so they can start offering ATMs and point-of-sale card transactions again. Joel added, “We have money down here but we can’t access or use it because the card transactions require power and Internet. Hopefully we can help do our part to get things back up and running again.”

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