Editor’s note: Kate Hurowitz, an internal communications manager at Google, was a volunteer member of the NetHope team deployed to Puerto Rico and its official mission storyteller.
Jose Nazario is a first-time NetHope volunteer from Google, who went to Puerto Rico in October for a two-week deployment. I sat down with him to get his thoughts on the experience.
Q. Tell us a bit about yourself.
A. I grew up in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, and attended college in Mayagüez, where I got a degree in electrical engineering. I’ve been back and forth between Puerto Rico and the States ever since, and I’m currently living in Virginia.
Q. What kind of work do you do at Google?
A. I’m part of the Technical Infrastructure organization, on the networking operations team. My team supports the planning and design of fiber optic infrastructure in Google’s data centers. I gained much of that experience running a telecommunications and electrical design business in Puerto Rico.
Q. What was it like for you, as a Puerto Rican living in the States, when Hurricane Maria hit?
A. It was terrible—we felt so helpless. Luckily the members of my family who are still living there are safe. My daughter gave birth to twin girls just four months ago, so she decided to leave the island. So, my family is OK, but I was still looking for ways to help.
A. NetHope received a grant from Google.org to support their work in Puerto Rico, and supplemented the grant with volunteers, sending several Googlers with backgrounds in network engineering. I’ve never climbed up on a roof to install a satellite dish—my area of expertise is more in systems design—but I thought some of my skills might come in handy. I have a certificate in solar panel installations, I’m a native Spanish speaker, and I know the island like the back of my hand. So, I let the Google.org team know I was interested.
Q. What was your first impression upon arriving in Puerto Rico?
A. We’ve all read the news, and know that two months after the storm, many people in Puerto Rico were still without power, internet or cellular service. Still, I wasn’t sure what to expect. As we flew in, I was relieved to see that leaves are starting to grow back on the trees. And in some ways, life is moving along again—people are doing the best they can in this new reality. For instance, the guys on the corner who used to sell TV antennas made out of PVC pipes are now selling washboards, since everyone is washing their clothing by hand.
But driving through San Juan at night for the first time was a shock. It was just so dark, in a place that is usually full of light. And so many people were still struggling to get enough food, water and medical care—especially in the more rural, harder to reach areas.
Q. What problems has the lack of connectivity caused on the island?
A. So many problems, it’s difficult to know where to start. In the days following the storm, it was impossible for most people to reach their loved ones. Keep in mind that there are more Puerto Ricans living on the mainland U.S. than on the island itself, and in some cases, it was weeks before they knew for sure that their family members back home had survived.
So many of our systems are dependent on the internet: With credit card systems down, you need to use cash to buy food, fuel, everything. But most ATMs went down too. Doctors can’t access patients’ records. You can’t call 911.
Q. What was your role on the NetHope team?
A. In addition to assisting on several VSAT installations, I conducted several site surveys in locations across the island, to make sure NetHope is investing time and equipment in the right projects. I’m very happy that the day before I left, I could coordinate the installation of a point-to-point internet connection for Save the Children, which has set up operations on the island.
Q. What’s your advice for others who might be interested in volunteering with NetHope?
A. Jump in with both feet! You’ll learn so much.
To donate to NetHope’s Hurricane Relief Fund, please click here. Thank you for your continued support.