Connecting state and local government leaders
Hurricane Ian forced governments across Florida to respond quickly, leading to calls for improved systems and streamlined recovery operations.
While Hurricane Ian brought floods and high winds, displacing thousands from their homes, it also disrupted communications and forced governments at all levels to quickly respond across the impacted states.
For state and local governments, the risk of higher intensity natural disasters brings with it a whole host of technological challenges, including the need to improve communications resilience. Some observers said it also shows the need to digitize and streamline government processes and shift more operations to the cloud.
The situation in Florida showed how quickly that communication infrastructure can fail. According to data collected by the Federal Communications Commission, almost 18% of cell sites in Florida were out of service on Sept. 29 as Hurricane Ian made landfall, although telecommunications companies and others were quick to respond with temporary infrastructure to minimize service disruptions.
Clint Dean, vice president of state and local government at technology advisory firm Ensono, said while local governments may have kept their services operational through local data centers, those successes pale in the face of physical infrastructure failures.
“The challenge is, the citizens aren't there to consume the government services, because the critical infrastructure of the community is gone,” he said. “They don't have power, they probably don't have internet, they probably don't have cell service.”
Local leaders are then forced to evaluate how they communicate with residents, Dean said, and come up with emergency short-term solutions.
Functioning telecommunications infrastructure is critical not only during a disaster, but ahead of it as well, as officials communicate the need for preparedness, like encouraging homeowners to strengthen their properties.
In a bid to improve these communications, David Santiago, head of industry for public sector at Adobe, recommended governments take an “omnichannel approach” to speak to constituents in a variety of ways. He also urged local governments to work to “personalize content at scale” so it is tailored to constituents’ needs, an effort that could include personalizing applications for disaster relief so residents can take full advantage of programs available to them.
Other technologies could also step up and provide relief. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said that Starlink would provide its satellite internet services to the hardest hit areas. James Clevenger, director of sales and business development at communications company Hughes, pointed to efforts in Puerto Rico where satellites helped maintain operations at some pharmacies during Hurricane Maria.
While the technology has existed for many years, Clevenger said it is hard convincing governments to invest in it for “what-if scenarios.”
“What's challenging in the government space is honestly procuring these situations, almost the paperwork part of it that you have to get through, and of course the budgeting process,” he said. “Budgeting is super tight right now.… It is not the technology, it's governments hitting the ‘go’ button [so units can be shipped] “to wherever they're needed.”
Local governments also should look to leverage the cloud to house their online operations, Dean said, to help residents continue to engage with needed government services.
“If you think about that, your services are technically available to anyone anywhere,” he said. “In a disaster, if you've been evacuated, maybe from Florida and you're held up somewhere in Georgia, in theory from your phone, you can take care of what you need to or whatever it is.”
Storms of the severity of Hurricane Ian have in the past been relatively rare, but if they increase in frequency, local officials should start planning for their impacts on technology and infrastructure, Dean said.
“I don't know that [government] thinks about and even contemplates how to plan for disaster on the scale of what we're seeing in Florida with Ian,” he said. “That's maybe the next evolution and disaster recovery planning for CIOs, that collaboration with emergency management, up through and including state of emergency planners.”