"Many Puerto Ricans can't get the information they need related to recovery issues, and their voices are not being heard. People are isolated, and don’t have any way to relay what they're seeing and experiencing in their communities."
In the aftermath of the September 20 2017 landfall of Hurricane Maria, an Internews assessment team carried out an information ecosystem assessment with residents in Puerto Rico (PR) to gauge their information needs and access and to learn about the situation of the Communication with Communities (CwC) response across the country. The aim was to better understand the physical, institutional, and social infrastructure of the local media in the post-disaster state. The team also focused on: communities' recovery-related questions; the most effective means of sharing information; which local media outlets are most successful in reaching communities with relevant recovery information; and how government officials and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are communicating with affected populations.
Prior to the hurricane, around 90% of Puerto Ricans had cell phone access, and 80% were online. Outside of the capital San Juan, as of the time of the assessment, those communication channels had been mostly non-existent since September 20. Lack of a reliable connection between San Juan and other parts of the island has meant a delayed relief and recovery response to some areas. The United States (US) government's response to Hurricane Maria was widely criticised at its outset for logistical and political delays that impeded aid from reaching the island. But a variety of public media outlets, journalist associations, and volunteers in the US have been raising funds and collecting equipment to help get broadcasters impacted by Maria back on the air.
The assessment, carried out from October 16 to October 31 2017, included interviews with PR residents, representatives from local volunteer groups, non-profit organisations, local and regional media, government officials, technologists, and national and international humanitarian organisations in San Juan, Corozal, Mayagüez, and Toa Alta. The CDAC [Communicating with Disaster-Affected Communities] Network Common Needs Assessment Tools were used as reference to guide key informant interviews.
Some highlights of what they discovered about local media include:
- Economic realities are hitting the media hard: A major print outlet, GFR Media, laid off 59 employees of its newspapers, El Nuevo Día and Primera Hora, and newspapers have reported significant decreases in advertising. Reports show that losses in the radio industry alone will exceed US$20 million.
- Many media outlets have closed or have suspended broadcasting: Sistema, a major local TV station, reported that it was closing, citing Maria as the reason. Accessibility to TV is low across the island due to lack of electricity. Twenty-three AM and 22 FM radio stations were confirmed still out of service as of October 31. Many radio stations are relying on generators to broadcast.
- Content needs are critical: Local news stations are relying heavily on local officials to share information, and don't all have the resources to investigate more deeply on their own. Various organic endeavors are springing up to share information about recovery efforts – posters, runners, fliers, speakers. But there seem to be no initiatives that focus on content, ensuring it is accurate and that it doesn't fuel rumours. The US Army was printing and distributing relief pamphlets, but there is a need for a similar offline effort related to long-term recovery issues. As internet access returns to a majority of citizens, a website and social media campaign dedicated to recovery news and information is needed.
Highlights about local information needs include:
- Basic information needs are not being met, and there is a lack of coordination of information.
- People in San Juan want updates on the power grid - those without generators are still mostly without electricity of any kind. In rural areas, "people are still in the dark – both literally and figuratively. They rely on word of mouth from friends and neighbors, and the few radio stations that were able to get back on air after the storm."
- People want to know when more businesses will begin opening up, both for goods and services, but also because they need to start earning a paycheck again.
- In rural areas, people are in search of basic information about clean water, tarps for their roofs, updates on damaged roads, and accurate details on food distributions.
- Humanitarian organizations that are reaching some of the more remote areas indicate that people are also desperate for information related to health needs and are vulnerable to rumours about recovery efforts.
Based on these findings, Internews concludes that a two-way communication strategy is needed that will enable affected communities to both get "news they can use" related to their recovery, and also share the things they are seeing and experiencing. People have specific information needs depending on where in Puerto Rico they are located, and the channels for reaching them also vary. The following are recommendations to address these issues.
- Create a central information hub for up-to-date recovery information. This should be achieved by working with all relevant stakeholders (federal and local governments, INGOs, local NGOs, local media, and affected communities) and should involve hiring Puerto Ricans in different municipalities around the island to contribute to timely information updates and assist with content distribution.
- Launch a collective service for communication and community engagement: Internews recommends using a diversity of channels (radio, SMS (text messaging), phone, community-based networks, print, loud speakers, message boards, etc.) to deliver and receive information and feedback. Affected communities need to be involved in the setup of the system.
- Publish and distribute a daily news bulletin with recovery information: The bulletin will address issues such as: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) deadlines and requirements; health information, warnings, and protocols; answers and facts that address harmful rumours; government services and updates; local resources (water, electricity, food, shelter); job and volunteering postings; and mental health services and tips. Internews also recommends partnering with local mayors and municipalities, community media outlets, humanitarian responders, and local NGOs to deliver the information (online and offline) to affected communities (e.g., by announcing news and updates through speakers on local trucks or online outreach through social media channels).
- Set up feedback and rumour tracking mechanisms: Community involvement can hold stakeholders accountable, lead to better provision of services, and increase the agency and morale of community members who may otherwise feel isolated. Internews suggests that this information be collected on a consistent basis and included in the information hub's content. Face-to-face information gathering through staff and local partners will identify umours that can then be fact checked through the information hub. These rumours will need to be addressed in a timely and consistent manner with accurate and transparently sourced information.
- Provide connectivity and mobile charging stations: Internews recommends working with tech partners in addressing connectivity through WIFI hotspots and mesh networks, as well as distributing information hub content through those partners and locations. In addition, Internews recommends providing solar mobile phone charging stations.
- Partner with local radio stations to distribute hand crank radios or batteries.
- Provide financial and technical support to a selected number of local media organisations.
- Organise roundtables and town hall events between NGOs, government officials, humanitarian organisations, and local media. Create an open space for discussion of pressing issues and build relationships and networks across sectors - not only for the recovery of Hurricane Maria, but to build resilience for future crises.
Internews website, November 14 2017. Image caption/credit: Under generator power and the glow of Christmas lights in San Juan, PR, the Parallel18 team and entrepreneurs work at dusk. By Justin Auciello