Nearly 800,000 without phone, Internet after hurricane in Puerto Rico

The aftermath of Hurricane Fiona is seen in a photograph taken above a city in Puerto Rico on Monday, September 19, 2022.
The aftermath of Hurricane Fiona is seen in a photograph taken above a city in Puerto Rico on Monday, September 19, 2022. (Photo by John Priddy, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol; Graphic by The Desk)

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A strong hurricane that swept through a portion of Puerto Rico over the weekend has knocked out cable, phone and Internet service to nearly 800,000 residents.

The figure was reported Tuesday by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which said the number of people who have been disconnected from cable systems and wired Internet service providers has increased in the days since Hurricane Fiona hit the Atlantic island on Sunday.

The hurricane crossed Puerto Rico as a Category 1 storm, damaging critical utilities relied upon by nearly 3.2 million people. Much of the island suffered a major power outage in the immediate hours after the hurricane struck, and hundreds of thousands of people remain without running water.

The island’s communications infrastructure has also been impacted, with more than 30 percent of Puerto Rico’s cell phone towers knocked offline, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without reliable wireless phone service.  All told, over 760 wireless phone towers are out in Puerto Rico, the FCC said, with the majority of those going offline due to power outages. Many of the affected phone towers had no back-up power source.

The situation is hitting cable, Internet and landline phone customers particularly hard too: One day after Hurricane Fiona made landfall, the FCC said more than 767,000 customers had their cable, phone or Internet service cut off. That number jumped to over 795,000 by Tuesday morning.

The FCC said it is working with government agencies and telecommunications companies in Puerto Rico to establish partnerships that will help bring equipment to the island and allow customers to roam on the networks of competing services. The agency is also extending deadlines and waiving fees for broadcasters and communications companies affected by the storm.

Jessica Rosenworcel, the chairwoman of the FCC, drew comparisons between Hurricane Fiona and Hurricane Maria, a storm that ravaged Puerto Rico five years ago. Rosenworcel said many of the areas devastated by Hurricane Maria were being impacted by Hurricane Fiona all over again.

“In times of crises, staying connected takes on new urgency,” Rosenworcel said in a statement on Tuesday. “The FCC is assessing the impact on communications services and infrastructure and issuing daily public reports to keep people informed. We will work closely with government partners and communications providers to support restoration efforts as families and residents all over the island begin to rebuild, once again.”

On Sunday, U.S. President Joe Biden approved an emergency disaster declaration that directs federal emergency assistance and funds to Puerto Rico. The declaration puts the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in charge of disaster response there. As of Tuesday afternoon, FEMA officials were en route to the island, but no disaster recovery centers had been established.