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At Guajataca Dam, an Alert to Avert Disaster

Emergency Communications
Satellite is Essential

On September 23, three days after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, a portion of the island was faced with another imminent disaster. The Guajataca Dam, a 90-year-old structure built to create a lake as a source for drinking water, as well as an electrical power generator on the island, was about to fail putting tens of thousands of lives at risk downstream.

image of broken dam

Lacking the standard sources for electricity and communications, teams from National Weather Service used a generator to power their local satellite terminal to alert agencies in the U.S., including Department of Defense (DoD) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) via Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls.

The result was an ordered mandatory evacuation for 70,000 nearby residents and businesses who were at risk of flash flooding. The evacuation started that night when the order came in and officials, still facing harsh conditions from storm bands still brushing the island, set out to evacuate the nearby residents and businesses. With the support from the local National Guard, task forces were mobilized immediately as word had to be passed around person-to-person since there were no means of mass communication on the ground.

The dam eventually experienced a controlled breach but was quickly restored to a stable, while less functional condition as evacuees were transported to local emergency shelters. Thanks to the rapid response by government agencies and local officials, what could have been extreme levels of damage were prevented and lives were undoubtedly saved.