“Let me just see if we got any answers to the relays.”
“‘Whiskey Papa Three Radio’—listening,” said Ángel Vázquez over radio.
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico with devastating force, making landfall on September 20, Vázquez was hunkered down at home. On a normal day, he would’ve been at work; not far away, at the Arecibo Observatory, the world’s second-largest radio telescope. There, Vázquez is Director of Telescope Operations.
The 1,000-foot-wide dish has beamed SETI messages into deep space, and detected far-flung planets. Today, some of the only radio signals coming from Arecibo Observatory belong to Vázquez, and concern purely terrestrial matters.
After the storm barreled through the island, the Universities Space Research Association, which operates the facility out of Maryland, lost contact with its crew there. But within 36 hours, Vázquez could be heard on the airwaves, thanks to a ham radio rig in his house.
Everyone who sheltered at the observatory was safe, he said. A 96-foot-long antenna had crashed into the enormous dish, leaving gaping holes. One smaller dish had been lost.
The Category 4 tempest killed at least 10 people in Puerto Rico. An estimated 700 more were rescued from deadly floodwaters. Officials at the government-owned power corporation said it could take months to re-establish electricity across the country.
President Trump’s response to the crisis has been perfunctory. Over the weekend, for example, he tweeted 17 times about professional sports. While Puerto Ricans are suffering, he’s made ill-timed comments about the island’s debt.
Food, water, fuel, and battery power are running out. “If anyone can hear us… Help,” pleaded San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, on Saturday.
Most Puerto Ricans are just trying to reach family members. Few have access to Wi-Fi hotspots or electrical outlets. Sustained winds of 155 mph obliterated 95 percent of Puerto Rico’s wireless cell sites, leaving much of the country a deadzone. In…