Puerto Rico downed power lines - Getty Images

At least ten radio stations are out of service in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Fiona. And as federal efforts ramp up to help the island, many broadcasters are on the front lines providing news and information about the cleanup from the storm. Like radio’s counterparts on the mainland, Fiona is showcasing the medium’s role as a “top responder” during an emergency, says San Juan General Manager Alan Corales, President of the 70-station Puerto Rico Broadcasters Association.

“Although it has been difficult, radio is always the first to respond to these weather events,” says Corales. “We know that many of our people have been affected by the passage of Hurricane Fiona, and we are all fighting to have the stations on the air in record time. We continue to serve our communities.”

The Federal Communications Commission said late Tuesday that it is aware of six FMs and four AM stations in Puerto Rico that are off the air. But because the FCC’s Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS) relies on voluntary reporting and some stations may not have the internet connection needed to file a report, the actual number may be higher. No broadcast television station is believed to be dark, but the FCC says Cable and wireline companies reported 795,289 cable and wireline subscribers are without service in the disaster area. That includes the loss of telephone, television, and internet services.

Cell phone service has been hard hit across the island. The FCC says overall, nearly a third (30.2%) of the cell sites in the affected area are out of service. While it is lower in San Juan where about a quarter of cell sites are offline, things are worse in some counties such as Las Marias where 81.8% of cell sites are dark and Culebra Country where 80% are offline. Other hard-hit counties include Barranquitas and Coamo where 72% are dark, Comerio (68.8%), Jayuya (66.7%), and Cayey (55%).

The FCC says it has been coordinating closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government partners, including officials in Puerto Rico, as well as communications providers to help with restoration activities.

“I saw that firsthand during my visit to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and now some of those same areas have been hit once more,” said FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement. “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,” she said.

It was five years ago that Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the FCC says it is taking the lessons learned from that response now in the Fiona cleanup. That includes performing a baseline survey of spectrum usage in targeted areas, including AM/FM radio, which will help federal agencies assess the post-landfall impact to broadcasters and public safety communications. The FCC is also deploying staff to the affected areas to perform post-landfall, on-site surveys of communications services and infrastructure as well as to assist with coordination and oversight of communications restoration.

“In times of crises, staying connected takes on new urgency,” Rosenworcel said.

Fee Deadline Pushed Back For PR Stations

In a move to help those stations impacted, the FCC has pushed back the annual regulatory fee deadline for Puerto Rican radio stations impacted by the hurricane. Those stations can now pay the annual fee up to 11:59pm ET on September 30. For all other stations the September 28 deadline remains in effect.

The FCC says it is also looking at other regulatory deadlines and assessing the need for other regulatory assistance that may be helpful. That includes granting Special Temporary Authority (STA) to permit immediate or temporary operation of certain radio facilities, as well as waivers to support emergency communications and service restoration.

But Brenda Victoria Castillo, President of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, thinks the government needs to do more. She says the Biden administration needs to “immediately provide significant aid” to Puerto Rico.

Free Press Action echoed that, saying the FCC needs to exercise its full authority to help everyone on the islands in need of critical telecommunications. While Free Press’ Vanessa Maria Graber says the Biden administration is doing better at addressing some things, such as making more outage information public, more work needs to be done.

“All in all, it’s deeply troubling how little the FCC has done to use existing information about what went wrong in 2017 to prevent the kinds of failures we’re now seeing again in 2022,” said Garber.