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Satellite Industry Responds to Haiti Disaster

By | April 1, 2010

      On Jan. 12, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, devastating the western end of Hispaniola and making life even more difficult for the country’s 9 million citizens. Minutes after the quake was reported on 24 hour news channels, the satellite industry began responding, quickly becoming the foundation on which all recovery and relief efforts were built upon.

      With its undersea cable snapped and, at press time, still unrepaired and with a wireless infrastructure that was severely crippled, satellite technology was the only communication medium available to militaries, foreign governments and non-government agencies (NGO) that arrived in Haiti to provide assistance and relief. Although only a short time has passed, important lessons have been learned that will help both the satellite sector and emergency responders.

      The scope of this disaster is hard to fathom. Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas, and food, shelter and national infrastructure already were substandard. When the earthquake hit, it decimated not only homes, buildings and roads but also government buildings and the officials they housed, effectively leaving the country without a functioning government. “The Haitian earthquake is quite different than other recent disasters,” says David Hartshorn, secretary general of the Global VSAT Forum. “… the earthquake left Haiti with a negligible ability at the local level to coordinate a response. Even the United Nations mission in Haiti was destroyed. We are dealing with a very different set of challenges. In Haiti there was a core team of five government officials who coordinated frequencies for the nation. Four of the five were killed in the earthquake.” 

      The First Few Days

      Neil Butterfield, Latin America special events coordinator for Intelsat, along with a team that included a video journalist from Reuters and a still photographer, flew into Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince the morning after the earthquake. An eerie quiet greeted the private charter as they taxied up to the terminal. A small group of Haitians greeted them outside the airport building. It turned out they were the only ones to show up to work as most employees stayed at home that day. Fearing structural damage to the terminal building, the employees refused to go inside for immigration forms and welcomed the arriving party to Haiti. As the chartered plane departed to return to the United States, the team split up and went about their assigned tasks. Butterfield started unloading twelve crates of gear from the plane, while the video producer went out on the streets looking for possible footage. He did not have to go far, returning after just 300 meters, declaring the carnage to be the worse he had ever seen. Butterfield’s team also included a Haitian-American translator. His first task was to hire an electric generator and then find fuel. The team was fortunate in that one of the airport buildings had a generator and fuel. The only problem was that it was at the other end of the airport. One by one, the twelve cases of equipment were lugged into place and four hours after arrival they broadcast the first news of the tragic earthquake’s aftermath on Horizons 2.

      The next day military cargo planes began arriving from the United States, bringing with them vital supplies. Due to the size of the airport, only five large cargo planes could be accommodated at a time. Within a day, planes were only allowed to land if they had enough fuel on board to take off again. Additional journalists began arriving and were directed by the military to Intelsat’s uplink, which quickly became an impromptu media center. Some of the newly arriving journalists brought flyaways and the number of uplinks swelled to four. Tarps and tents radiated out in all direction, serving as shelter for more than 200 journalists from around the world. Butterfield returned home after five days, deeply moved by the experience. “When we met the Haitian president the day we landed, he feared that 1,000 to 2,000 people had died. So far the death count has topped over 250,000. It was more intense than a war zone. There was total chaos with no sense of community. … Many of the international journalists there and crews were seasoned war correspondents and several told me that they cried at least once or twice a day at the terrible loss of life.” 

      Extra Bandwidth

      The value of satellite technology quickly comes to the fore in the aftermath of a major disaster. While terrestrial telecommunication technologies were left in shambles, Earth stations can be pointed skyward within minutes, connecting distant locations. When news of the Haitian earthquake was broadcast, MSS service providers began shifting resources to the Caribbean within minutes. In a show of goodwill, satellite engineers from Skyterra and Inmarsat coordinated with each other to maximize the total amount of bandwidth available through both company’s satellites. Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat, Inmarsat, Iridium and SkyTerra all provided significant amounts of bandwidth to militaries, government agencies and NGOs. Soon after the earthquake, wireless networks began popping up throughout Haiti. Many were connected to a new generation of MSS terminals. Iridium’s usage in Haiti increased 18,000 percent in just a week.. As they came online, VSATs replaced many MSS terminals and provided even higher capacity satellite circuits. The message was clear: No longer did everyone need their own personal satellite dish. “The Asian tsunami was the first disaster in which BGAN service had been used, but it was limited to ships at the time,” Jack Deasy, director, civil programs, at Inmarsat, says. “The earthquake in China marked the first time BGAN had been used on land in a disaster response. Over the last few years, the U.S. media and NGOs have integrated BGAN into their organizations and are now trained to use the terminals.”

      Shortly after the earthquake, Haitians began receiving text messages on their cell phones from friends and loved ones that were trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building. Sensing the significance of the international press, Haitian citizens began relaying the electronic pleas for help to the journalists. Text messages written in Creole, spoken by roughly 80 percent of the population, were relayed to West Africa via Skype, where they were translated into English. A group of volunteers at San Diego State University, which was working in conjunction with the U.S. Navy, used non-classified surveillance video from UAVs to determine the locations described in the text messages and relay GPS coordinates to rescue teams. This was the first time civilians were allowed to access this military technology. When the first text messages for help started trickling the process of getting rescuers to the right location took five hours. In just days, the delay was reduced to an hour. 

      Lessons Learned

      There are many lessons to be learned from the Haitian earthquake, some old and some new. The basics needs remain water, food, an electric generator and plenty of fuel, and money helps you get things done. And speed of operations remains key, says Hartshorn. “Having equipment in regions where there will likely be problems significantly reduces the time to set up communications,” he says. “Within hours of the earthquake, people in Haiti had contacted GVF and a technician was dispatched to help deploy the first VSATs for NGOs. After day one, layer upon layer of communication systems began arriving.”

      Art Rumney, information technology director for Louisiana Social Services, who lived through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, stresses the availability of electric power, public assurance, pre-positioning of equipment and training. “We have built our new communication system on the pCom 300 VSAT trailer, built by Squire Tech Solutions. It has an integrated 10-kilowatt generator and has enough power to run our satellite and IT infrastructure for a week as well as emergency lighting and power restoral abilities. After all, it all starts with power. … When a significant number of people must evacuate or are displaced by a natural or man-made event, they can travel in any direction. The telephone lines are often jammed after an emergency, leaving family members to wonder about their loved one’s safety and whereabouts. Now, when someone checks into a Louisiana state shelter, their name is added to a database, which is searchable by employees of Louisiana Social Services. Families can now call the state agency and verify that a family member has been located and is being taken care of.”

      None of these systems are assured to work in a disaster unless you train with them, says Rumney, who has embedded their disaster recovery satellite and IT networks into Louisiana’s infrastructure. Once a quarter, the local offices of Louisiana Social Services must commission the pCom VSAT trailer and use the standby information technology systems to register new applicants for food stamps. We must insure the continuation of government, even in the event of a major disaster. We must integrate these disaster recovery systems into our daily business, when we do so setting them up and using them becomes second nature,” he says.

      “The discipline of emergency management is still a very young profession,” Hartshorn says. “Much is being learned about how to pre-position both equipment and human assets as well as how to deal with roadblocks. There has been an explosion of mutual aid networks and cooperation among communities with shared interests in disaster response and preparedness. Meetings are going to try to capture the lessons from this disaster while they are still fresh in everyone’s mind so we can put in place better plans and make better use of resources.”

      Satellite IndustryTo comment on this article, visit Greg Berlocher’s blogat

      Greg Berlocher has been active in the satellite industry for twenty five years and is the President of Transcendent Global Networks LLC.