From the air, the devastation Hurricane Maria brought to Puerto Rico appears to be catastrophic. USA TODAY
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Double-barreled hurricanes that wiped out the island’s cellphone towers have left 91% of Puerto Rico without cellphone coverage, cutting off a lifeline to family and first responders.
The extraordinary lack of connectivity, further hampered by electricity outages and fuel shortages, has led to several low-tech solutions — some people are using AM radio stations to send over-the-air messages, others resorting to pricey satellite phones to make calls.
As the major U.S. cellphone carriers send in personnel and supplies to rebuild destroyed networks, one stopgap solution has emerged: a program that relays the most basic of information, that an individual’s cellphone has been turned on and connected.
AT&T and T-Mobile, two of the four biggest carriers in the U.S. territory, have for the first time created programs that allow people in the United States to register the cellphone number of family or friends in Puerto Rico, regardless of the carrier of the person registering.
When the Puerto Rican customer’s cellphone is first able to connect to a network, they will immediately be notified that family and friends in the United States are trying to contact them.
As of Thursday, more than 12,250 people had signed up on AT&T’s website for the service.
The wait could be a long one. According to the Federal Communications Commission, as of Thursday, 31 of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities had no functioning cell sites at all. Across the U.S. territory, 75% of cell sites are currently out of service.
The widespread destruction of the infrastructure that makes modern, connected life possible is worst outside the capital, San Juan, but even there cellphone hot spots are few and far between.
According to the FCC, of the area’s 364 cell service towers, 284 were out of commission Thursday.
Cellphone service was extremely limited but occasionally available in odd spots along highways around Puerto Rico.
Each day, on Highway 22, just west of San Juan, motorists parked their cars on the shoulder of the highway and congregated on the sides of the highway, hoping to grab a wayward signal and connect with loved ones back in the U.S. or elsewhere on the island.
AT&T seemed to be the most widely used on the island as the carrier offered brief, fleeting signals to customers.
Flooded roads, cut fiber lines, a lack of power and thieves targeting generators and fuel slowed attempts by the cellphone companies to restore service a week after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
Sprint had shipped out a load of supplies and parts along with a crew of engineers and technicians who were working with its local team there, the company told USA TODAY Thursday. More shipments and staff are scheduled to arrive soon.
The first shipment included generators and fuel, which are in extremely short supply.
Maria struck the territory as a Category 4 hurricane, with winds up to 155 miles per hour, leveling structures and cell towers across the island. Acting Department of Homeland Secretary Elaine Duke on Wednesday described the island’s entire electrical grid as “virtually gone.”
Sprint’s headquarters in San Juan has resumed operations and is coordinating the effort to re-establish communications for both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, it said.
In an email to USA TODAY, T-Mobile described the situation in Puerto Rico as “extremely challenging.” It said all the wireless carriers there were working together and sharing resources to get residents back online as quickly as possible.
To work in Puerto Rico, T-Mobile has brought in dozens of emergency and disaster experts who have experience working in hurricane zones, including after Katrina, Sandy and Irma.
AT&T said Thursday it had sent four chartered planes to Puerto Rico containing supplies, generators, and personnel and plans to send additional flights and barges in the coming days and weeks.
The company said it now has more than 50 generators in place and restoration team personnel on the ground and plans to deploy a number of portable temporary cell sites.
Mexico-based Claro Americas, a part of América Móvil, provides landlines and wireless service in Puerto Rico. On its Facebook page the company said it was continuing the work of rebuilding its network.
Elizabeth Weise reported from San Francisco and Rick Jervis from Puerto Rico.