Maria first hit Puerto Rico on the night of September 19, 2017. The category five hurricane had powerful winds that reached 185 miles per hour, and the disaster it caused is still evident four months later.
In the first week of January 2018, 43 percent of the island's population was still without electricity and four percent had no water service. The lack of aid and slow assistance from the U.S. – of which Puerto Rico is a territory – have worsened the situation.
Thousands of businesses had to close, including independent digital media organizations. The island does not have an exact figure of how many of these media startups exist, or how many were affected by the catastrophe, but the lack of internet services due to the power outage and damage in the communication towers naturally affected these projects.
However, despite the darkness encompassing the country, some digital outlets were the light that people needed in the midst of the disaster.
Perla Sofía Curbelo is a journalist, educator, entrepreneur and founder of Agrochic, a digital startup focused on gardening and urban agriculture. “Prior to the hurricane, I programmed some content because I knew I would be out of electricity for several days,” she explains, “but I never imagined the impact of the hurricane and living so long without basic services.”
The days before the storm, Curbelo used Agrochic's social media – especially Facebook – to share content and useful messages in preparation for what was coming. “I shared a lot of third-party content that recommended relevant resources for the citizens,” she said. “As soon as I was able to have an internet connection, I updated my blog with a post about my experience and tried to share some optimism in the midst of so much frustration in the country.”
Another journalism entrepreneur who managed to keep posting amidst the tragedy was Rafy Mediavilla, editor-in-chief of the digital entertainment site Los Criticólogos. Los Criticólogos features articles and interviews about film, television, popular culture and videogames for a local and an international audience. It was one of the few outlets that kept updating content in the days following Maria.
Mediavilla anticipated an inevitable loss of electricity and communications, and temporarily delegated the responsibility of publishing the site's content to contributors based in Tampa, Florida.
“The real problem came after the first two weeks of the storm. Our biggest concern was how to make our programs live, and produce original content. I think that's what motivated me to get an inverter” said Mediavilla. An inverter is an electronic device that changes direct current – like the one generated in automobiles – to alternating current, which is used in residential structures. This allowed him to work from home.
When the Internet finally came back a month later, in mid-October, he continued to produce the content that was part of his fixed schedule . However, Mediavilla was aware that his largest market, Puerto Rico, “remained in the dark and many had no way to communicate to enjoy the content”.
He had no expectations about receiving feedback from his audience because he knew the situation the country was going through. “My goal was simply to keep the site updated, and not miss content,” said Mediavilla. “To my surprise, although our numbers were affected by the event, after the first two or three weeks, they increased exponentially as I realized that we gave a break in the flow of the bad news, and that other outlets we usually consider our competitors had temporarily ceased to work.”
La Isla Oeste is a news outlet located in the west of the country, which was severely impacted by the hurricane. “When communications collapsed in Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria hit, LaIslaOeste.com also collapsed,” said Daileen Joan Rodríguez, the site’s editor. “We immediately lost the ability to communicate with our contributors or official sources and couldn't find out about the effects of the storm… It was difficult for us to quickly reach the places where we wanted to do on-the-ground reporting.”
Rodríguez decided to move to the regional radio station WKJB, in Mayagüez, to broadcast the information she had at hand.
“Posting articles became a slow process. You had to look for places with internet and places to charge electronic equipment,” Rodríguez explained. Still they managed to publish a piece just six days after the hurricane.
La Isla Oeste received help from ViTec – a business incubator in Mayagüez – and the Center for Investigative Journalism, which provided them an inverter to charge their equipment in a car. “One of our reporters continued to send contributions without invoicing,” said Rodríguez, “so we were able to maintain the flow of local information.”
Still, things were difficult. “The site's traffic dropped dramatically and remained like that for weeks. It was not until December that we saw a favorable recovery.” Rodríguez explained. “It used to be difficult enough to find advertisers for our project; now more.”
Unwilling to let this setback destroy them, the team of La Isla Oeste took the opportunity to redesign the image of the site, as well as update their business plan and marketing strategies.
At the same time, Rodríguez and her team are preparing themselves for when a new and inevitable storm comes. “We learned that we have to invest in satellite equipment to avoid going off again, in case of a similar emergency,” she said. “It is also urgent to raise an emergency fund to help employees in their immediate needs in these cases, and thus ensure that their services are not interrupted.”
Each of these media outlets achieved what many others in Puerto Rico could not. Several digital media organizations have announced that they will close due to their founders’ loss of property or the lack of energy and connection services. This year will definitely be a challenge for Puerto Rican media, but the stories of resilience from Curbelo, Mediavilla and Rodríguez are a light at the end of the tunnel.
This story originally appeared on SembraMedia. It was translated and republished on IJNet with permission.
José Hernández Falcón is a journalist, blogger and a lover of the evolution of communication as a result of the internet. He is an independent Social Media Specialist and director of Puerto Rico BloggerCon, an event that brings together digital content creators to the Island.
Main image CC-licensed by U.S. DoD via Sgt. Jose Diaz-Ramos.