Live emergency broadcasts from FEMA NPWS/PEP station, WKAQ, San Juan, Puerto Rico. (FEMA photo)

HSToday Profile: FEMA’s Manny Centeno Resurrects Communications After Catastrophe

In a major disaster, everything is a top priority. But among all the things you need to be working at top performance, none are more important than communications. That includes emergency networks, telephone lines, cell phone service, TV/radio broadcasts, the Internet and so forth. Without any of those capacities, real-time information can’t get to the people who need it most, or to those who can begin to deliver aid and assistance where it is most needed. And the longer those capacities are out of commission, the tougher response and recovery operations are to execute.

Nowhere was this challenge more apparent than in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria slammed into the island just over a year ago. When the Category 4 hurricane struck the island with 150-mph winds and rain measured in feet – not inches – it knocked out just about every imaginable infrastructure from being usable. Those roads, bridges, airports, harbors, utilities, essential services and communications that were not destroyed or operable post-storm were crippled to a point that they could not provide the capacities necessary for the demands of the response and recovery conditions.

Enter Manuel “Manny” Centeno of FEMA – one of the many FEMA team members who was on the ground in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands working to get everyone communicating again. A project manager with FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert Warning System (IPAWS) Program, Manny has spent nearly a decade working on communications systems and programs to keep everyone connected in the worst of circumstances. With his FEMA colleagues, contractor team partners and other public- and private-sector members, Manny leads the sustainability, modernization, construction and operations of the country’s National Public Warning System (NPWS), Nationwide Emergency Alert System (EAS), and the Primary Entry Point (PEP) network.

His mission and operational goals are very direct and succinct: keep everyone connected and talking. But like most mission assignments and goals, it’s easier said than done. Especially when you are being challenged by environments and conditions that are doing their utmost to stop you from succeeding.

HSToday’s Editor at Large Rich Cooper spoke with Manny Centeno to hear about his experiences with Hurricane Maria and to better understand the challenges he and his team had to contend with in Puerto Rico. Manny also discussed what lessons he and his team learned over the past year and how those lessons will be applied future disasters.

HSToday: Tell me about your job at FEMA. And what was your role with supporting Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico?

Centeno: I currently lead the National Public Warning System (NPWS), Primary Entry Point (PEP) project within the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), Program Management Office.  IPAWS is a program within the National Continuity Programs (NCP) directorate. The NPWS is a network of 77 FEMA-supported, resilient radio stations that can directly reach 90 percent of the U.S. population.

Installing a temporary communications link in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. (FEMA photo)

The IPAWS/NPWS Team, including NPWS Sustainment contract personnel, and I have been sustaining our assets in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands for many years. Since 2009, I have been conducting workshops in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, providing information and insights on emergency communications and broadcasting to emergency managers and broadcasters. In 2016, we modernized the emergency shelter facilities and replaced the emergency backup generator at WSTA in St. Thomas. In June 2017, we replaced the FEMA emergency power generator and diesel fuel tank at NPWS/PEP station WKAQ in San Juan, anticipating an above-average hurricane season.

I began preparing both sites by asking local station personnel to pre-run the generators under load, and test-run the backup transmitters and satellite telephones. Two days before Hurricane Irma ravaged St. Thomas, I was confident we did all we could to make the facilities ready.

HSToday: When did you arrive in Puerto Rico and how were you there? What were you doing on those tours?

Centeno: My first deployment to the area was after Hurricane Irma made its closest approach just north of St. Thomas on Sept. 6, 2017. The Virgin Islands, particularly St. Thomas and St. John, were devastated, while St. Croix and Puerto Rico suffered a lesser impact from Irma. The NPWS/PEP station in St. Thomas remained on-air, although it suffered severe damage to its facilities and antenna system.

I deployed to the Virgin Islands/Puerto Rico on Sept. 11 to support restoration of emergency broadcasts and assist in other communications. I was supported by CACI personnel who volunteered to travel to the disaster zone with me. These gentlemen, Steve Wiley and Jeff Hugabonne, were key to our successful disaster communications response in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. We were able to land in Puerto Rico, hoping that we would be transported quickly to St. Thomas. However, due to the devastation on St. Thomas and the fact that all airports were closed and transportation was limited, it took me two more days to get us to St. Thomas (including large amounts of gear, parts, food and other supplies). While we waited for transport to St. Thomas, we made minor repairs to the NPWS/PEP WKAQ in San Juan and dropped off supplies for future emergencies. Little did we know Puerto Rico was going to suffer a major impact within a couple of weeks.

I could also monitor signals in San Juan from WSTA in St. Thomas. We could tell the signal was degraded due to the damage.

Manny Centeno assists with bag loading in San Juan on a FEMA-chartered 737 to head out to St. Thomas. (Photo by Jeff Hugabonne)

We arrived in St. Thomas on Sept. 13 and found that the site was severely damaged by wind and water. The communications station remained on-air 24 hours a day, but it was evident that immediate repairs and mitigation were necessary for it to continue to serve the public under the Irma emergency. WSTA was the only station operating in St. Thomas-St. John in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

Once we got settled, we conducted repairs on the WSTA towers, transmitters, FEMA satellite communications systems, and installed “fly-away” emergency satellite communications packages to provide telephone and data services critically needed in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. These systems gave the Virgin Islands territorial government and FEMA the ability to communicate life-saving information to the public (information on food, water, medicine shelter, etc.).

ATU broken off WSTA tower base, St. Thomas. (Manny Centeno/FEMA)

The IPAWS NPWS/PEP station, WSTA, became the communications hub for information to the public and, in the first days after Irma affected the Virgin Islands, was the only viable method for communicating long distances within the territory, including sending messages to St. Croix, 40 miles south. Unfortunately, most of the repairs made to this facility were temporary due to lack of rapid air transport of parts and components post-Irma. Once I found out that another tropical storm had formed in the Atlantic and was headed to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, our activities took an even more feverish pitch. I made sure that our facilities in the Virgin Islands were well-equipped and ready for another major hurricane.

Because of the imminent threat Hurricane Maria posed to the Virgin Islands, we evacuated St. Thomas on Sept. 17 and returned to the U.S. mainland to make response preparations after Hurricane Maria passed through the area. Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico’s southeast coast on Sept. 20 and devastated St. Croix a day earlier.

I watched in horror from FEMA Headquarters Washington, D.C., as the Virgin Islands (this time mainly St. Croix) and now Puerto Rico were impacted by another devastating hurricane. Although I grew up in the Virgin Islands and had experienced and survived hurricanes Hugo (1989) and Marilyn (1995), I had never seen two monster storms hit twice within such a short period of time. During those disasters, I operated radio stations and emergency repeater sites in St. Croix and St. Thomas.

With Hurricane Maria now out of the area, my CACI colleagues, Steve and Jeff and I departed to the disaster area on Sept. 23. We all got on board an Air Force C-17, departing out of Dobbins AFB in Marietta, Ga., for an emergency flight to Puerto Rico. We flew overnight and landed at sunrise the next day.

Steve Wiley (CACI), left, Manny Centeno (FEMA) and Jeff Hugabonne (CACI) working at NPWS/PEP WSTA in St. Thomas. (Photo by Peter Ottley)

Unfortunately, due to a mix up in scheduling, we boarded an aircraft headed to St. Thomas, instead of San Juan. However, this error turned out to work out for the better because we were able to spend another two days in St. Thomas resetting communications equipment that had been stowed away so it was not damaged by Hurricane Maria. These activities assured that Virgin Islanders would continue to receive critical information in the aftermath of both hurricanes.

After that, I focused my attention to supporting recovery in Puerto Rico. The team and I arrived in San Juan on Sept. 26 and found considerable devastation and destruction to homes, businesses, power and the telecommunications infrastructure.

Puerto Rico’s size, mountainous terrain, and heavily damaged transportation infrastructure made it really difficult to move around. There were little to no commercial resources available to support restoration of tactical communications, and in our case, restoring and maintaining regular and continuous communications with the public. The seaports were closed until they could be inspected and deemed safe for docking. The main airport was initially closed to commercial carriers so they could prioritize the transport of response and relief personnel and emergency commodities to the island. As a result, we had to make do with what we brought with us. In most cases, we had to improvise and come up with working solutions that were often “outside the box.”

Manny Centeno assists with generator inspection at a communications site in Puerto Rico. (Photo by Steve Wiley)

Our priority and mission in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands was to restore and maintain communications with the public. One of the most important things to do after a disaster of Maria’s magnitude is to provide the public with the best, most timely and accurate information so individuals, families and businesses can make life-sustaining decisions.

Additionally, I understand from my prior experiences that effective communication with the public includes providing residents and visitors with reassurance and positive messages. This type of messaging supports positive reinforcement and motivation during the response and recovery phases. For weeks after the hurricane’s landfall the public had little to no access to social media or the internet. There was no television, cable and, for the most part, little access to cellular service. Radio was the only constant presence. It provided information on food, water, medicine, shelter and available services. Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are radio-centric communities because that is what residents of these two territories depend upon. It’s part of the culture.

In Puerto Rico we worked hard to strengthen and stabilize communications links to and from the FEMA NPWS/PEP station. We conducted, maintained and refueled the emergency power generation systems. We also installed flyaway satellite communications terminals to provide voice and data service to WKAQ. This provided a link to government officials, so they could call the station (by satellite phone in the first few weeks) to provide critical updates to listeners.

If you’ve never been there, there are 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico. Each and every one of them were severely impacted and had their own unique situations. Radio provided those areas with timely and actionable information. Mayors used radio as the only tool available to them to reach their constituents. Many of them drove for hours to the NPWS/PEP station and to other smaller radio stations to speak to their residents.

While our team and I were on the island we met with representatives of cellular carriers to seek and help coordinate ways to power important cell towers to restore service to areas of interest, including hospitals and public safety centers.

One of the most important things I was able to do was motivate the broadcast industry on the mainland to locate and send battery operated radios to Puerto Rico. I put out a request to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) to find out if anyone had surplus radios available to send to the island. The NAB rapidly responded and indicated they were able to locate 10,000 AM/FM portable radios with batteries, which were provided with the support of the Florida Association of Broadcasters. We all worked together to get those radios transported to Puerto Rico.

It was not an easy feat given the transport limitations. I was asked to arrange for distribution to residents who needed radios to receive information. I was able to partner with island mayors to support distribution to their residents. The radios were a lifeline of critical information in the immediate weeks after Maria’s landfall and the recipients were very happy to have a way to get information they needed.

10,000 radios distributed to residents in areas of Puerto Rico where there were no other means of receiving information. (Photo by Mayor Lornna Soto)

HSToday: So what’s happened since then?

Centeno: We have been working nonstop with the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Bureau (PREMB), the Puerto Rico Telecommunications Board, National Weather Service, the Puerto Rico EAS Emergency Communications Committee, the Puerto Rico Broadcast Association, cellular carriers and others to help restore and harden communications, especially public warning systems. I installed an IPAWS origination system at the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Bureau so that they have a method to send alerts to the public in times of emergency. I’ve also been training the emergency management and PSAP staff so that they are proficient in sending effective alerts to the public.

On June 26, the PREMB successfully sent the first-ever Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) message and Emergency Alert System (EAS) test to the residents and visitors in Puerto Rico. These tests were the start of an incremental process to assist Puerto Rico with their ability to communicate with the public in times of emergency. Additional tests will continue to be conducted regularly not only to train the staff and exercise the systems, but also to educate the public and create awareness of official information sources, readiness and preparation for disasters.

We have also installed a highly capable emergency broadcast studio at the tower site of the FEMA NPWS/PEP station. This studio provides the PEP station, local and Commonwealth of Puerto Rico officials the capability to address the public from a hardened and resilient site, facilitating fast, effective and constant communications with the public.

HSToday: What else is being done to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands?

Centeno: It’s been a constant improvement process of working with a lot of different partners to do the following:

  • I developed technical requirements and project process to install IPAWS-compatible outdoor siren systems in areas close to the Guajataca Dam in Puerto Rico. This effort is being used as a proof-of-concept for the replacement of all outdoor siren systems in Puerto Rico.
  • Provide regular communications SITREPS for FCC and FEMA;
  • Arrange for FEMA and local government media access on all broadcast outlets; and,
  • Work with other FEMA officials, local telecommunications agencies and telecommunications providers to discuss and act on ways to rapidly restore services.

HSToday: What’s the biggest challenge you are having in restoring communications to the island? What’s slowing progress? And what’s the biggest public misconception that citizens of Puerto Rico and U.S. citizens have about the communications restoration mission? What do they need to know/recognize that they don’t readily appreciate about this challenge?

Centeno: Initially, the biggest challenge I encountered was lack of utility power at important communications hubs. There was also great difficulty in accessing many towers sites throughout the islands. Accessibility also hampered power restoration efforts. Power has been completely restored at these sites now. There are a few other challenges: Most island communications are distributed above ground. Most are interconnected by point to point microwave links. In windstorms, these are highly vulnerable and take significant time to repair or replace.

Most people are unaware of the immense complexity of modern communications systems. In an island like Puerto Rico with its difficult and hard-to-access terrain, these complexities are multiplied. You have to keep in mind that the personnel and equipment needed to restore and rebuild communications on an island that is 3,515 square miles, with a population of over 3.5 million, is not readily available. All of these resources must be identified, flown and shipped to the island. That takes time.

Manny Centeno assists PREMB Director Carlos Acevedo with origination of first IPAWS test in Puerto Rico on June 2017. (Photo by Jody Smith)

HSToday: What emerging technology(s) do you see as a game-changer to having secure, stable and sustainable communications in Puerto Rico and elsewhere?

Centeno: This may sound obvious, however, in all its simplicity communications is defined as the imparting or exchange of information. In the past, you needed at least two nodes to communicate effectively; in today’s world, a multitude of nodes. In Puerto Rico, the majority of these nodes were destroyed, damaged or had no electricity to operate. For me, it is not so much about new or emerging technologies, but more about how to integrate existing and cost-effective technologies to provide solutions. In order to have more resilient communications in areas such as Puerto Rico, it is important to decentralize and create “self-healing” networks based on a combination of secure pathways that include underground/underwater fiber, simple, easily serviceable radio networks and satellite links. One must start with creating effective communications resiliencies for first responders and emergency managers followed by resilient links at the community or neighborhood levels to support public safety, such as power-redundant, wireless community networks that can connect to resilient fiber.

HSToday: What should remote islands and other remote areas/communities learn from the Hurricane Maria experience?

Centeno: Readiness and preparedness are the antidote to disaster. Adequate and frequently exercised plans lead to faster and more effective response and recovery. There is no other way! Emergencies and disasters may not always be preventable, and in fairness to the areas affected by Irma and Maria, it must be remembered that these storms were monsters.

However, the impact of these events can be minimized by agencies and individuals who plan, react and respond in an educated and practiced manner. In many cases, Hurricane Maria exposed serious organizational flaws at local levels, virtually non-existent readiness and close to a total lack of preparation and resiliency. I learned those lessons years ago during hurricanes Hugo (5 months without power) and Marilyn. Jurisdictions, individuals and the public sector must adequately fund emergency preparedness and response, draft and maintain plans and practice those plans regularly.

HSToday: What role did satellite communications play in the Maria response and recovery, and what role do you think it may have in the future?

Centeno: Huge role. At FEMA, and specifically our work with IPAWS and its NPWS, we maintain effective satellite networks. After Hurricanes Irma and Maria I was able to quickly transport, install and operate satellite terminals that provided immediate voice and data circuits to connect to the outside world, local authorities and the public. Small, portable, deployable and easy-to-operate systems are the key to effective communications in remote or isolated areas. They provide the capability to plan and execute response, manage logistics and communicate critical information to decision-makers.

FEMA IPAWS installed satellite flyaway communications equipment to provide voice and data. (FEMA photo)

HSToday: What lessons do you want communications providers, emergency managers and the public to take away from this experience?

  1. Complacency is your enemy; be proactive to improve readiness;
  2. Always plan for worst-case scenarios;
  3. Learn, plan and practice Continuity of Operations (COOP) concepts;
  4. Engage with private- and public-sector partners and seek cooperation/support before emergencies;
  5. Make your operation as resilient and redundant as possible;
  6. Practice and exercise frequently; and,
  7. Seek information and stay informed.

HSToday: How will this experience change how you do your job? How do you hope it changes FEMA?

Centeno: This experience has reinforced my understanding of how vulnerable communities may be and the importance of preparedness and shared responsibility within all sectors. It has also underscored the importance of “whole community” engagement, training and exercising to support better and more-rapid response to emergencies. It is important to continue to engage the public so that there is better understanding of readiness and response well before a disaster strikes.

HSToday: The energy/power community had innovators like Elon Musk step up to offer up the Tesla Powerwalls to help restore power to parts of the island. Did the communications community have similar technology innovators step forward? If so, what happened?

Centeno: Puerto Rico has accepted FirstNet to improve communications between components of public safety and first responders. FirstNet is an independent authority within the Department of Commerce and is tasked with developing and fielding a nationwide broadband network to support the first-responder community. This effort will significantly impact and improve emergency tactical response and communications in Puerto Rico going forward.

Additionally, it supports the ability of authorities at the local level to more effectively manage the emergency and communicate with state-level and federal responders. The sooner local authorities can communicate their needs, the faster help can arrive at those communities.

It is important to understand that, given the level of devastation, Puerto Rico’s wireless providers and internet service providers (ISPs) did a very good job restoring communications. FEMA and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are supporting rebuilding and enhancements to Puerto Rico’s telecommunications infrastructure. Broadcasters did an incredible job keeping residents and visitors informed before, during and after the disaster. They also assisted in getting urgent messages to and from the central government and municipalities, and assisted with identifying areas of urgent need. Sometimes legacy technology works better in these types of scenarios.

Also, several companies announced efforts and initiatives to pilot or demonstrate new ideas and approaches in the aftermath of the disaster. However, it is not easy to implement certain cutting-edge technologies in the immediate aftermath of a disaster of that magnitude due to the urgent and adverse conditions. Now that life on the islands is returning to normal, it is a good idea to revisit consideration of new ideas and technologies to support improvement in future situations.

FEMA IPAWS is also supporting the implementation of new public warning technologies in Puerto Rico. This effort includes the development, testing and deployment of IPAWS-compatible outdoor siren systems. This provides authorities on the islands the ability to generate a single message that is disseminated over multiple alerting pathways, including wireless phones, radio, television, cable and sirens.

Jeff Hugabonne and Manny Centeno conduct antenna tuning unit repairs at NPWS/PEP, WSTA in St. Thomas. (Manny Centeno/FEMA)

HSToday: Who were your best partners during this experience? Was there a partner you wish you had who was not on hand to assist you? If so, who or what group was it?

Centeno: Our best partner in this experience were the radio broadcasters in the area. These public communicators worked selflessly to assist local and federal authorities and provide life-saving information to the public.

HSToday: How has this experience changed you personally and professionally? What is different about you (Manny) today after Maria?

Centeno: This has been a very intense yet exhilarating experience. This experience has provided me an opportunity to relive the “disaster experience” and refocus on the importance of resiliency and redundancy. At present, IPAWS is modernizing the NPWS/PEP stations around the country. It is not always easy to see the end result of our efforts. Natural disasters, like Irma and Maria, provide a vivid example of the extreme situations our sites may find themselves in. I am applying lessons learned from these disasters to my everyday approach to making our NPWS/PEP stations more survivable and assisting others in finding solutions.

HSToday: If you had a chance to meet with the governor of Puerto Rico and other local officials to advise them on how to make the island more resilient and to prepare for future emergencies like Maria, what would you tell them?

Centeno: As a member of the Communications and IT Sector responding to the 2017 disasters in Puerto Rico, I have recommended a stepped and incremental approach to developing proper preparedness and response solutions. The initial response phase following a disaster is not the best time to decide on long-term solutions. Very often, knee-jerk reactions during this phase may end up causing longer-term problems. Once the jurisdiction begins to return to normalcy, efforts must be made to review lessons-learned and begin structuring new plans to support stronger readiness and resiliency. Any good plan should be flexible and allow for necessary improvisation to address unforeseen circumstances. All government agencies within local governments must have clear and effective plans and methods to adequately manage an emergency and develop plans to create specific redundancies to back each other up should it be necessary. The key is to take the time to develop adequate policy, governance, planning, training and exercising that results in positive emergency management outcomes.

Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is a Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute; a Senior Policy Principal for Homeland Security and Justice at SAS Federal and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. He has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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