When Mawar hit the mute button: What Guam learned from the recent storm
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
The next morning after Typhoon Mawar pummeled through Guam in May, the island’s residents woke up finding themselves in an apocalypse-like state, disconnected from the rest of the world, clueless about what was happening outside their homes. No power. No phones. No internet. No radio stations. No TV. No newspapers.
The total communications blackout was utterly unnerving. Crumbs of information were passed around by mouth. Emergency response was in total chaos. No one knew where to start.
Typhoon Mawar was a wake-up call, according to Lucy Perez, cyber intel analyst at the Guam Homeland Security “We need to expand our understanding of communications, not only for our first responders but also for families,” she said at the Cyber Security Conference and CyberStrike Training hosted last month by the Guam Power Authority, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response.
While social media may be an effective system to send out messages to the public, Perez noted that this platform was rendered useless by the unavailability of the internet.
A post-storm analysis, Perez said, revealed a nexus of failures and huge gaps in Guam's communications system management, which she said has been neglected since Super Typhoon Pongsona hit Guam two decades ago. The systems were not properly maintained and backup communications were not in place, indicating a lack of foresight.
Since the 2002 storm, Perez said the government has cut the budget for communications systems due to the skepticism of those who held the purse strings. “Our finance managers asked: Why do we need extra money for maintenance? The system was working until it’s not,” she said.
Then after Mawar, a question was asked: “Why didn’t you have a backup plan? We couldn’t stress enough the importance of having a backup,” Perez said. Having satellite phones and subscribing to more than one telecommunications provider, she added, could have eased the communication meltdown.
Mawar also knocked down the Guam Power Authority’s infrastructure, making it more difficult for telecommunication providers to get their systems back up. “They have generators but generators are meant only for short-term use, not for 10 to 14 days,” Perez said.
Guam relied on generators provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But Perez noted that prioritizing power restoration for telecommunications providers could have alleviated the communications crisis.
However, she added that infrastructure resilience can provide a long-term solution. “We are now working with GPA, hoping that through a partnership with FEMA, we can bridge that gap by getting critical partners like the carriers to put their infrastructure underground so that we can better withstand the increasing intensity of the storms,” Perez said.
Mawar also triggered an information crisis when dead air hit broadcasting stations. “During the previous storms, we had a couple of radio stations, including religious channels. This time around, that didn’t happen. So we knew we were in trouble when we couldn’t even get that,” Perez said. “Part of the plan is to include broadcasting stations to ensure that the things they need and the checklist to operate during the storm or any other incident are met.”