Volgenau School of Engineering
George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Driven to Serve: Engineering student helped restore power and communication services to Puerto Rico

November 9, 2017   /   by Martha Bushong

As a data analytics engineering master’s student and a network engineer for the telecommunications company Sprint, Henry Delgado is used to solving problems, but he had a chance to solve problems of a different type after Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico with Category 4 storm damage.

Maria, the most severe storm to hit the island in nearly 100 years, knocked out 1,360 out of 1,600 cellphone towers on the island. Above ground and underground phone and internet cables were also rendered useless. Communities were isolated from the outside world for weeks, relying only on radios for news. People on the U.S. mainland worried about families and loved ones, and many tried desperately to contact them.

As soon as he heard about the devastation, Delgado began reaching out to officials at Sprint company headquarters. After a couple of weeks, the officials wrote back and asked for volunteers. During the middle of October, Delgado travelled with Sprint co-workers to the Caribbean to help assess damage to the telecommunications infrastructure and provide relief to U.S. citizens living in the territories of St. Thomas and Puerto Rico. His team was there to follow up on the work of an earlier team, record and document the situation, and, wherever possible, work to restore power and communication.

“Our highest priority was to get the lights on, then restore voice, then data services,” Delgado says. “We travelled to different locations to check things out. This was mostly a humanitarian effort. We were there to help the people get the power and communication going. People needed water, they needed food, but power was critical.”

Delgado stresses, “You would hear the news report saying it was like a war zone, but that wasn’t the case at all. I never felt in danger. The people were friendly, helpful, and doing the best they could.”

The Mason Engineering graduate student also had personal interest in helping Puerto Ricans get up and running. His mother was born there and his aunt, uncle, and cousins still live on the island. “Ironically, I had been there to visit family just before the hurricane hit,” he says. “I really saw the difference; the before and after. The change was dramatic. After the storm huge palm trees lay on the ground. It looked like something had come through and pushed them down right where they were standing. It was the same thing with electrical poles. There was lots of flooding too.”

Delgado describes roads in terrible disrepair and snarled traffic due to lack of traffic lights. “On the first day, it took us three hours to drive what normally would have taken 40 minutes,” he says.

On a typical day, the team would rise at 7 get breakfast, have their team meeting, and then hit the roads, often working until 8:30 p.m. “It’s an all hands situation, everything matters.” Delgado says.

The visit was bittersweet. While he rejoiced in seeing relatives and delivering food, Delgado says, “The hardest thing for me was leaving and knowing there is still so much work to do. I want people to know it’s not dangerous. If you want to go, and get the opportunity just go.”