IT disaster recovery lessons learned from Hurricane Maria

While the devastation of Hurricane Maria has left many lasting effects on the region, the storm provided valuable lessons in how to deal with a natural disaster of this scope. For aid workers like Rami Shakra and Matt Altman, capturing these lessons is critical.

“You’re only months away from the next hurricane season,” Shakra said. “It just overwhelms you with how much preparedness work you need to get into. We brought in all the key players and captured what we could do better and how we could prepare.”

Shakra is a field connectivity director at NetHope, a nonprofit that helps reestablish communications services after disaster strikes. He was the first NetHope aid worker on the scene in Puerto Rico and worked closely with other organizations like Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Red Cross, and the Cisco Tactical Operations, or TacOps, team, to rebuild in Puerto Rico. Matt Altman is a network engineer on the Cisco TacOps team. (For more on Shakra’s work with NetHope and TacOps to reestablish connectivity, see “Rebuilding Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.”)

In January 2018, NetHope aid workers deployed in Puerto Rico met with volunteers from Google, Facebook and Cisco to brainstorm on key takeaways. The disaster recovery lessons learned are outlined here.

1. Triage your disaster recovery strategy. One disaster recovery strategy that worked in Puerto Rico was to use a three-tiered system to re-establish connectivity in the region. That allowed teams to triage and prioritize tasks, which was important given the scope of the disaster and the number of people in need. According to Shakra and Altman, there are three main goals:

  • Support first responders who distribute aid.
  • Connect local providers to help them recover services, enabling providers to help others.
  • Provide connectivity to the public. Teams identified town squares, for example, that could connect multiple providers and provide limited Wi-Fi access to the public.

2. Build indigenous capacity. Another key lesson is that regions like Puerto Rico benefit from building indigenous, local capacity that can act as first responders. “Ninety percent of the workforce is in Puerto Rico,” Shakra explained. “You now have people on the ground who are trained and are the real first responders. We have built that capacity in people.”

3. Have lightweight, portable solutions. Another key disaster recovery lesson learned is that teams on the ground need easily portable satellite connections—sometimes inflatable or possibly just lightweight—that can be hand-carried on a plane, then substituted for more reliable, stable connections later on. Teams also need pre-tested technologies that are ready to roll out.

4. Have equipment reserves. Building capacity also means having satellites, generators and other equipment on-site ready to deploy in the event of a disaster. Shakra said that NetHope has appropriated space in a warehouse in Puerto Rico with this equipment.

5. Build redundancy into your DR plan. Another key tactic—often elusive in vulnerable and under-resourced areas—is building redundancy into your disaster recovery plan. Milton Riutort, who manages communications at the University of Puerto Rico’s Utuado campus, noted that having relationships with more than one ISP can be critical in disaster situations. “This is the correct way to do it, to manage the risk,” Riutort emphasized. “We are clear that we need at least two providers.”

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