2018 Annual Report Spotlight: Providing Internet Support During the Storm

January 9, 2019


As part of our ongoing series featuring stories from Voqal’s FY 2018 Annual Report: Be Nimble, we take a look at Voqal’s efforts to provide valuable internet access to those directly affected by Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.

Many Americans live in coastal areas that are swept by hurricanes every single year. They sock away plywood to cover the windows. They make escape plans and find out where to get sand bags filled. They maintain stores of canned food and bottled water. In other words, they plan for every possibility.

Unfortunately, even with these preparations, things that are normally taken for granted often fail during major storms like Hurricane Harvey or Irma. The power goes out, and it may stay out for days, making landlines and desktop computers unable to provide the information needed to stay secure. Roads and businesses close, and sometimes people are stuck in a shelter or other location, weathering the storm.

Voqal has formed partnerships with many community and social service organizations nationwide to provide affordable internet access and mobile hotspots. Many of the organizations in the paths of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey found that these devices, as valuable as they are to an organization’s day-to-day business, are even more important in an emergency.

Hurricane Irma set records, knocking out power to millions of Floridians. When outages are this severe, mobile devices can become the only viable means of communication. In Tampa, staff at the Florida Autism Center of Excellence (FACE) needed Voqal’s hotspots both during and after Irma. They were able to access news and community information during power outages. As a result, staff and parents could communicate with each other, and after the storm had passed, they were able to get up and running more quickly. Andrea Lee, Assistant to the Principal at FACE, said, “These hotspots can truly be a lifesaver. You don’t realize how much you need one until you have one.”

80-plus children — in addition to staff and teachers — knew communication was key when Hope Children’s Home lost power during Irma. With the mobile hotspots provided by Voqal, they kept track of each other as they evacuated the sprawling 55-acre campus. Since not everyone was able to take shelter in the same location, teachers and staff members needed to plan and contact each other over a period of several days without power. They were also able to access records on the children, their families and others who might be concerned about their safety. The evacuation process is never predictable, but the flexibility and mobility of the hotspots made a real difference.

Although Irma was the bigger storm, the flooding during and after Hurricane Harvey devastated communities just a couple of hours across the Gulf from Tampa in and around Houston. Many relocated to shelters for days or even weeks, waiting for the flood waters to subside. During this time, some Houston-area shelters run by the Red Cross had access to the free hotspots and internet service provided by Mobile Citizen’s Street Ready program. The hotspots supplemented the internet services the Red Cross already had in place, which allowed more people to access information and let their loved ones know they were safe. This provided better access to client shelters, whose internet services were already overtaxed.

Natural disasters like Harvey and Irma put immense strain on local resources. People living in areas affected by these storms experienced extreme hardship. They were separated from their families, neighbors and homes. They couldn’t locate those who had been moved to safer locations in a hurry. They needed information about when power would be restored. Access to the internet provided them with this information and let them know where to get clean water, which roads were still closed and where they could get a hot meal or medical attention. The internet is the best source of up-to-the-moment information.

Even the most careful planner cannot anticipate every problem. That is why information and communication are so important. Voqal’s commitment to providing internet access brought the power of information and communication to many in a time of crisis. To learn more about Voqal’s work in Fiscal Year 2018, read the full annual report.