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22 minutes

On September 7, Hurricane Irma struck Puerto Rico. And not even two weeks later, on September 20, Hurricane Maria followed. The damage was catastrophic, as over 90 percent of the commercial, public safety, and governmental communications systems went down. For those that remained online, fuel shortages, power outages, and other issues further strained public safety and law enforcement operations. What was the FCC's role in the wake of these storms? Evan is joined by Roberto Mussenden, an attorney in the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, where he works to ensure that first responders can communicate with one another during emergencies. They discuss Roberto's visits to Puerto Rico, the FCC's response efforts, and where things stand almost a year later. (Disclaimer)


For more information on the FCC's efforts on Hurricanes Maria and Irma, please visit https://www.fcc.gov/maria and https://www.fcc.gov/irma.

Evan Swarztrauber: Welcome to "More Than 7 Dirty Words," the official FCC podcast. I'm your host, Evan Swarztrauber. On September 7, Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico. And not even two weeks later, on September 20, Hurricane Maria followed. The damage was catastrophic. There was loss of life, injuries, property damage, and the damage to comms networks was pretty substantial as well. Over 90 percent of the commercial, public safety, and government comms systems went down. For those that remained online or the ones that were struggling to get back online, fuel shortages, maintenance and security issues continued to plague these public safety and law enforcement operations. Now there were a lot of entities involved in the response, but what was the role of the FCC in the wake of these storms? Joining me is Roberto Mussenden, an attorney in the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau where he works to ensure that first responders can communicate with one another during emergencies. Roberto, thanks for joining the show.

Roberto Mussenden: Happy to be here.

Evan Swarztrauber: So how did you end up being part of the hurricane response here—what about you made you the point man for this?

Roberto Mussenden: Well, we have an office of emergency—a division that deals primarily with FEMA in these responses and they're very, very good. They had been done in Harvey. They had done Irma. When the time came after Maria, I basically wandered over and volunteered myself to go down to help with the response because I had grown up there. And so it was personal for me. With very little hesitation and a fair amount of confidence on their part, they just said: "You can go. We'll give you some training, and we have confidence that when you go down there you will be able to make the right decisions and reach back when necessary." So it was a leap of faith on their part, and I am very, very grateful for it.

Evan Swarztrauber: We're all grateful that you made that leap of faith as well. Now before we get into the specifics of what you did from an administrative perspective, from an FCC perspective, what was it like being on the ground in your birthplace? I mean, of course, you had seen it before the devastation. I mean what was it like to be on the ground after these two storms?

Roberto Mussenden: So flying in, it was devastating to see how brown everything was. The vegetation have been ripped out and it's a very verdant and lush island. And to see it just devastated from that—just from the air—was very, very disturbing. And then once we got on the ground, it's not dystopian but it was close to apocalyptic. I mean, there were no lights. And we're coming into the airport and we we're going from the airport to where we were going to be working—and to actually, where I was going to be staying that first night—in the dark. I was completely disoriented. There was no traffic sound. There was no one on the road. So it was very, very disconcerting and a little unnerving.

Evan Swarztrauber: And of course given that we are a telecommunications regulator here at the FCC, the kinds of things we are looking at are television, radio, cable television, broadband, wireless, and wireline, you know, people's cell phones and their home connection. What were the challenges facing all of those entities?

Roberto Mussenden: So the number one challenge that we really never thought of or I had never thought of is that if you have no power, you have no communications. And the power grid was completely torn apart. So you had to find some sort of whether it was getting entities back on the grid, but primarily it was through use of secondary power sources, generators essentially. So those needed to get up. The towers were down. So there was a 1,000-foot television tower that is, that just came down. I mean, I ended up seeing it later and it's something to see, something that size just being on the ground. So that was sort of it. And getting fuel to these high sites—because a lot of the television and a lot of the public safety high sites and microwave backhauls are on the top of mountains. And roads to those were rendered impassable by mudslides or debris, so those had to be cleared. And some places, roads weren't able to take a truck, so you had to take fuel bladders up and constantly recycle, and bring parts for the generators to keep them up and running.

Evan Swarztrauber: Now of course, when we say over 90% of the networks went down, people may be wondering—what remained? I mean it was such a devastating Hurricane that you really start to scratch your head and think how could anything withstand this? But in terms of communications infrastructure, what was left in the wake of the hurricane?

Roberto Mussenden: So there was some of the wireless infrastructure remained up. And as the carriers started to heal themselves, what would happen is they ended up going into an open roaming agreement where anybody could use anybody's network. And you would have pockets of connectivity. And you would be able to see that on the side of the road because all of a sudden cars would pull off and stop. And people would get out and there would be these little crowds of people. And in the end, the carriers just started putting up signs where they had areas of connectivity, so people could go. And bit by bit, those areas began to spread as the carriers started working from the metropolitan area out to start getting service back. So that's one side of it. The other side of it from a public safety standpoint is all your first responder networks were—their towers were up on the mountain, so either they were down or they were off the grid. So we had to get them fuel, so then your police, fire, and EMS could start doing their traditional land mobile radio. So that was a very large endeavor—just getting fuel to places.

Evan Swarztrauber: And I remember seeing some of those photos and those videos online on Twitter, and elsewhere, of just people clustered in fields, just trying to grab a signal. And also, so that they could let their family and friends whether they were in Florida or in New York let them know that they were safe. It was pretty moving stuff. Umm in the wake of hurricanes, we often think that we're going back to the old school in many ways as you mentioned… Like fuel for generators, like anything that really works. And something you mentioned to me while we were chatting before the show is a "You can hand crank a radio, but you can't hand crank a television station." So was radio a particularly important mechanism for emergency alerts, other information, given that it's kind of resilient as compared maybe with other communications infrastructure?

Roberto Mussenden: It reminded me of how resilient, how broadcast radio is. In many ways, the ultimate in one-to-many communications device. And so, and people are used to it. People have created a relationship with their broadcasters. And so, that's a familiar voice and especially during a traumatic time like that, you do want to hear that familiar voice. And it allows the government to kind of work with the broadcasters to get information out. And it doesn't take a great deal of infrastructure to get a radio station up on the air. You're going to need power. Whether that's on the grid or via a generator, and antennas to get the station going. But once you get it going, in terms of technology that's needed, transistor radios will work. And then people can start to go in. What, one of the things that was a, I won't say a hindrance, but it was new for me, was the advent of social media, kind of providing answers when there was no official answers. So, sometimes we would get, we would hear anecdotally that there were basically rumors being started via WhatsApp, or somebody had tweeted out something, and that became in the absence of any official news, the news. So it was very very important for the Commonwealth government to work with the broadcasters to start getting the, essentially the traditional communications mechanisms up and running again.

Evan Swarztrauber: And you also mentioned that cable TV was a little bit more resilient, of course, you know over-the-air television, as you had mentioned, it takes a lot more to keep those TV stations online as opposed to an FM station or an AM station. But how did cable TV withstand the storm better than someone might assume?

Roberto Mussenden: Well because a lot of times they don't have the towers. So they're just going right into the headend of the cable station. So that kind of gave them some protection. Now, in the areas where the cable was strung and really strung instead of buried, they're going to lose that connectivity in the houses, but at least the ability to get the information into the cable headend was there.

Evan Swarztrauber: And of course that was one way of getting emergency information out there. Now, of course, you know, in terms of the role of the FCC, it's not like you're going down there with construction tools and putting towers back on the air, right? And it might not be intuitive why the FCC had such a robust response to the hurricane, but you know, you had kind of told me that there were two buckets of areas—one is a licensing one is coordinating frequencies. Let's start with that because you know, given the scope of damage, you had so many different entities on the ground. You had the U.S. Army, you had New York Fire Department and New York Police Department. I'm from New York City, of course, huge Puerto Rican population there so it makes sense that they would want to chip in. Red Cross. I mean, how is that stuff coordinated, and what role did you play?

Roberto Mussenden: So a lot of entities came in and a lot of them brought their own equipment, but all of them work on discrete frequencies, and if you're geographically separated, let's just say Florida and New York, you may be using the same frequencies and may have them programmed into your radio. If you're trying to do that in the same area, you're not going to be able to operate. So what our job was to do—and I worked with our partner agency, NTIA, which is part of the Department of Commerce and they regulate the federal frequencies—is find out what frequencies they were planning to operate on and then work to make sure ahead of time that we deconflicted at any potential interference. So folks could be able to go out and do their job and not worry about them trying to cure interference after it occurred.

Evan Swarztrauber: Yeah, of course, this is normally stuff that is dealt with not in the wake of an emergency, so it must have been a little bit more chaotic to have to deal with that in such a short timeframe. Now in terms of other things the FCC could do to help get things back on the air more quickly. Of course given that radio stations went down and TV stations went down, some of these entities might have wanted to start rebuilding infrastructure or building new infrastructure, you know, maybe their original location is now impossible because of a mudslide but they found a new location—and that might sound obvious right just like find a place to put the tower and go—but of course it's not that obvious. Because there's all sorts of regulatory stuff that needs to happen. All sorts of licensing issues that the FCC deals with and maybe we would deal with that and take our time in another set of circumstances, but this was obviously an emergency. So talk a little bit about the licensing area that you helped coordinate when you were down there.

Roberto Mussenden: So one of the other things that was really affirming for this experience for me is I really learned how good this agency cooperates. What it turned out a lot of times what my role was was calling back to headquarters or calling the ops-center and going 'who in the commission does media' and they would give me a name and I would be able to put the people in contact with it. So in many ways, I didn't have to go outside of my comfort area because the folks who could provide me that professional advice were a phone call away, or I could reach out to them and put them in contact with the people they needed. So the Office of Engineering and Technology, when experimental licenses came up, people wanted to try a new technology—whether it might have been Google Loon or some of the point-to-point devices that they were using to reinitialize the point of sales. I was able to put the prospective licensees in contact with who they needed here to get the licensing done. And then at that point, I could step aside because here at headquarters they trusted me to ask the right questions and I was very very confident in their ability to provide the right answer. So it made life much easier for me down there.

Evan Swarztrauber: Yeah, of course experimental licenses were very important, you know, kind of an all-of-the-above approach when you have a situation like that and Google as you mentioned got a license to do Project Loon, which was hot air balloon enabled Internet. And then of course, one other aspect of this was just seeing all of the entities that were contributing to the response. I mean, you mentioned Florida broadcasters were donating equipment, you have FEMA down there. What struck you the most about just the all hands on deck nature of this emergency?

Roberto Mussenden: Well, in many ways, the island, the Commonwealth, their slogan was "Puerto Rico Se Levanta," which is "Puerto Rico is getting itself up". And it was, to torture the analogy even more, it was like watching a standing eight count, you know, Puerto Rico was on its knees, getting up and all of us, the federal responders, we were there to assist. But in the end, it was the Commonwealth and the people of the Commonwealth who were getting themselves back up and running. There were people who literally had had, they were in the hospital after open heart surgery before Maria hit, and they leave the hospital to start working 14, 16-hour days with us in the Joint Field Office.

Evan Swarztrauber: Now, the FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, in addition to being the chairman, he also went down and I guess he was your personal navigator when he visited Puerto Rico because there was no GPS. So how are his navigation skills?

Roberto Mussenden: His navigation skills were fine, I mean we had some GPS ability. We could use some of the phones, and when we had connectivity, his skills were much more valuable riding shotgun. The Enforcement Bureau, has a pair of Tahoes that we keep down and one of the folks from my Bureau who's out of Florida was using one of the Tahoes to do—not direction-finding but to see what radio stations were on the air so we could give that information. And I was using the other Tahoe basically to get back and forth from wherever I was staying to the Joint Field Office. Well, I met the Chairman and the wireless advisor Zenji Nakazawa and they said let's go and one of the DHS tower climbers was kind enough to come with me so we could go up and take them up to El Yunque, which is one of the, it's in the National Rain Forest and it's one of the high sites and so we can take a tour so he could see, the Chairman could see with his own eyes the damage that had been done and sort of how inaccessible these places are in terms of being able to restore them.

Evan Swarztrauber: And your stay in Puerto Rico took you to some interesting places. I guess you weren't exactly staying in the Four Seasons every night that you were there. What were some of the more unusual places that you stayed as you were, you know, travelling throughout the island and you know, working on streamlining, coordinating, and all the things that you were doing?

Roberto Mussenden: We did—I mean the first night was in the basement or the exhibit hall of the convention center, which is FEMA had set up a joint field office. And that was cots of various sturdiness. Not all of them are—one cot collapsed on me in the middle of the night while I was dozing just because it wasn't used to, well, I guess 240 pounds but…

Evan Swarztrauber: Ha ha ha ha

Roberto Mussenden: …and that was always lit so that you found that people were there for awhile had made their own, essentially, shelters, so they could get darkness and get some sleep. After there we—the Merchant Marines—there were a pair of Merchant Marine ships one from New York state, that was the SS Empire State, and I believe the SS Kennedy came from the Massachusetts Merchant Marine schools. And they—I was there for a few nights and they put up varieties of First Responders. And so you were living on a Merchant Marine vessel—a cargo ship—and with all of the pluses and minuses that involves. The food is great. It's a galley on a ship. It's fantastic. The downside is that you forget that a ship is essentially a giant steel cage, so there is no cell signal. So at the end of the day the upper decks are packed with people trying to get cell signal to call back out.

Evan Swarztrauber: Right. And so speaking of ships, the FCC's role in hurricane response is not necessarily new, but Puerto Rico being an island must have brought unique challenges that maybe more inland areas would not, where you can just truck a lot of things in, you know once the—obviously the weather permits, you can truck a lot of things in, but being an island must have meant things were a little bit different than another hurricane responses.

Roberto Mussenden: Correct. What you have is, in the beginning, so there two ways of bringing anything onto the island: by air or by sea. There are size constraints: beyond a certain size things have to come in by ship. You have limited flights into the island. So especially in the beginning prior to the restoration of radar at some of the… at the main airport you were dealing with visual flight rules only so you were flying in during the day. So every essentially square foot of each of those flights had to be accounted for—that was valuable real estate whether it was people, equipment. And so, it was a triage for the various carriers and the, whether it was FEMA and the other agencies, trying to figure out how best to utilize that space. If you had to go by boat, that's a four-day transit from the mainland. So anything that you need you're not going to get for four days, even if you were able to be magically get it out of the port. However, that's its own problem. For example, there were 50,000 telephone poles that were shipped to the island by barge and they arrive in the port. However, a truck can only take 10 polls at a time. So getting the polls just out of the port requires 5,000 truck trips. So it became almost a logistical Jenga that luckily I didn't have to figure out. I just had to factor in when talking about realistic timelines for restoration, to be able to be able to factor those things in.

Evan Swarztrauber: Yeah, you've got a crowded airspace, you've got, you know, difficulty transporting things by land once they arrive. It must have been fairly challenging. Now, it's been almost a year since landfall. You were there at the beginning, and you've also been making periodic trips ever since, where do things stand a year from the impact?

Roberto Mussenden: So. the good side is the islands is lush and verdant. The people are back in some ways. You see, kind of, the Puerto Rican nature is infectious. They are very hospitable, welcoming and that's coming back. The infrastructure is very fragile. And it's up and it's running. And we are continuously working with FEMA and to the extent that I can help in terms of from a regulatory standpoint, I do my part but I mean, it's in the island that they're trying to restore a very battered infrastructure. And so that's sort of the challenge now is how do we restore it, yet make it stronger and modernize it?

Evan Swarztrauber: Right. And in addition to the role you play which was, you know, very important coordination among the entities and their frequencies streamlining regulations in order to get things back online and get experimental communications infrastructure online, the FCC announced in March that there would be some money for restoring communications: everything from short term restoration, fixed broadband, getting 4G LTE back online, you know getting schools back online through e-rate. So, we'll link to more information on that in the show notes, but they're, the FCC will be playing a very direct role in terms of trying to get some of this infrastructure back online. Any final thoughts before we close out?

Roberto Mussenden: This has been one of the most challenging and gratifying things that I've done in my 20-plus years at the agency. It has been great to work with sectors of the agency that I really did not know existed prior to going down with Maria, and it has been very very humbling and gratifying to see how willing people were to kind of go outside of their regular scope of work to give me whatever assistance I needed when I'm down there.

Evan Swarztrauber: Yeah, and it's been highly illuminating for me to talk to you. You know, I've only worked at this agency for six, seven months and to get a sense of the unbelievably important role that the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau plays, especially when disaster strikes, has been very gratifying for me. So thank you for being the first guest on the show and for taking the time to chat with me.

Roberto Mussenden: Happy to do it.

Evan Swarztrauber: Well, this has been our first episode for more information on the topics we discussed check out the links in our show notes, and we'll see you next time.