New York City Neighborhoods Prepare for Hurricane Season With Wireless Internet

Last year, Tony Baizan, 18, and Christopher Baizan, 16, knew nothing about technology. Now, neighbors in the Hunts Point neighborhood of the South Bronx need the brothers to help install storm-resistant Wi-Fi internet connections on the rooftops of 13 small businesses, and quick, because lives are on the line.

The networks will connect Hunts Point’s small businesses so owners can communicate and tap into one another’s resources to help neighborhood residents respond and recover when the next hurricane strikes.

At least 30 more residents are working in groups to build identical networks for 49 small businesses across four other neighborhoods: Far Rockaway in Queens, East Harlem in Manhattan and Gowanus and Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn.

Their efforts are part of a $4.1 million project called Resilient Networks NYC. The project is a response to Hurricane Sandy, the superstorm that hit New York City, killed 43 people, and left behind $19 billion in damages almost six years ago. It remains the city’s deadliest and most destructive hurricane in modern history.

Months after Sandy, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development granted New York City more than $4 billion to aid in the city’s recovery. Of that, $30 million was invested in RISE: NYC, a competition to solicit innovative project proposals designed to equip local small businesses affected by Sandy with resources needed to withstand future hurricanes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that this hurricane season, which began June 1, could yield one to four major hurricanes.

Kristin Bell, the senior project manager at the New York Economic Development
Corporation — the organization implementing the RISE: NYC competition — said the selection committee considered nearly 200 proposals from people from 20 different countries, and selected 11 solutions. New America, a research organization based in Washington, D.C., submitted the proposal for Resilient Networks.

“What was really exciting about this project is that they had a model that was replicable,” Ms. Bell said. “And they had developed this system of working with community organizations to build these community-based networks.”

Tony Baizan adjusts the wiring of Wi-Fi equipment. Chad Rhym/NYT Institute

Resilient Networks NYC builds upon earlier work in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where residents installed a similar network just before Sandy. The network allowed them to organize and recover quicker than the rest of the city in the hurricane’s aftermath.

New America’s local branch is in charge of the current project, and a three-member team called Resilient Communities was assembled to spearhead it.

Staten Island, where more than half of the city’s victims died during Sandy, is not included in the project. The borough’s Midland Beach neighborhood especially could use the resilient networks, as it is one of the most flood-risk areas in the city. However, talks with Staten Island community organizations and small-business owners fell through, according to Houman Saberi, deputy director of Resilient Communities.

Mr. Saberi said three major features make the network storm-ready. The network has backup battery power and two to three sources of what is called “backhaul.” That means when the commercial internet connection goes down at one site, a receiver can pick up a connection from another small business on the network. If all the networks fail, an intranet built within the network allows everyone on the network to send messages to one another offline.

Carol Johnson, an East Harlem resident and a volunteer with the New York City Community Emergency Response Team, helps prepare their neighborhoods for different types of disasters, said help arrived late in her neighborhood after Sandy.

“These networks could help people in the neighborhood become their own first responders,” said Ms. Johnson. “We can’t get the messages out to everybody.”

In Houston last year, during Hurricane Harvey, which killed 82 people, Alycia Miles didn’t wait for first responders. Instead, she coordinated rescues using social media and a walkie-talkie app called Zello. She later joined West Street Recovery, a grass-roots mutual aid group formed out of Harvey that focuses on low-income communities. The group partnered with small businesses and co-ops to provide residents who were affected with food and other supplies.

All the neighborhoods involved in the current project are low-income areas. Such areas are especially vulnerable during natural disasters, and many residents feel their neighborhoods are the last to get help. In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina killed nearly 2,000 people and left about 75,000 people homeless in 2005. In Haiti, at least 546 people died during Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

Chris Baizan, left, and William Marshall drill the final pieces into a new Wi-Fi equipment on the roof of the Point in the Bronx. Chad Rhym/NYT Institute

One of Resilient Communities’ first steps was to identify and partner with a community-based organization in each neighborhood. Because members of these organizations are deeply connected with their neighborhoods, they are the most adept to recruit small business owners and digital stewards.

Yamil Lora, who coordinates Wi-Fi and theater production at the Point Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit dedicated to youth development in Hunts Point, recruited small businesses with whom the organization had previous relationships. The recruitment included the Bascom Catering and Events, a twin business inside the Point building on 940 Garrison Avenue. Sandy disrupted its business when the owner himself couldn’t get to work.

“If I can’t get to work, it’s a problem,” said the owner, Kelston Bascom. He said he joined the project mainly to help the community, but the new networks could help his business.

“The Point already has Wi-Fi, so a lot of people already come in here anyway,” Mr. Bascom said. “The new networks is a plus.”

Just blocks away from the Point, on Hunts Point Avenue, is an auto repair shop called N&M Transmissions. Similar to Bascom Catering and Events, employees of N&M Transmissions couldn’t get to work in the aftermath of Sandy.

“We didn’t hesitate at all to get involved,” said Kevin Nuñez, the son of the shop’s owner. “We’re in it to help Hunts Point. A few weeks ago, a storm knocked down an old big dish that’s been on the roof since my father owned the shop in the ’70s. That just shows how much the climate is changing.”

Mr. Nuñez and Mr. Lora went door to door to recruit more small businesses. They, along with the other community organizations, faced some rejections. Some business owners didn’t quite understand the project and its benefits and thought it would be a distraction. Some were on board until they found out they were required to submit tax forms in order to verify that they’re a small business, even though it does not cost them anything.

Recruiting residents in the neighborhood to build the network was easier than recruiting business owners. Some of them recruited youth. Clayton Banks, the co-founder and chief executive of Silicon Harlem, a tech company in East Harlem, reached out to other organizations that focused on youth engagement.

In Hunts Point, Mr. Lora recruited youth who regularly visited the Point. Tony and Christopher were his first choices. He then recruited Mr. Marshall, a 61-year-old. Resilient Communities technology coordinator, and training specialist Raul Enriquez, who trains the workers, called digital stewards, on how to build the infrastructure. Digital stewards work between eight hours per week and are paid $15 an hour.

Recruiting digital stewards is one thing, said Mr. Lora, but retaining them is another, as some would leave and come back just to leave again, and others leave and never come back.

“You want to find people who are willing to commit and grow with the project,” said Mr. Lora. “But I knew I had that in Tony and Christopher, so they were my first choices.”

Tony and Christopher are now considering careers in tech — and that’s part of the mission, said Teresa Basilio Gaztambide, the former deputy director of the Resilient Communities program.

“The digital stewards are learning new skills and are keeping these skills in the community,” she said. “It’s important for residents to own the internet in their own communities, not some tech company who can take it away at any given time.”

Because the neighborhoods involved are low-income, many residents cannot afford home internet. In New York City, about 27 percent of households do not have broadband internet, according to a 2014 report from the Office of the New York City Comptroller. And an estimated five million families nationwide lack access to high-speed internet, according to the Pew Research Center.

Tony, a former student at Bronx Early Career Academy, said he failed courses because he didn’t have internet at home to complete online homework assignments.

“People just assume that everybody has the internet,” he said. “I was so embarrassed to tell my teachers or anybody that I didn’t have it.”

Christopher, a 10th grader at the academy, said he faces the same challenge and has to stay after school to use the computers.

Even though the government contract requires that the project help small businesses rather than residents, some community organizations, particularly the nonprofits that serve youth, became involved because of the possibility of amplifying the Wi-Fi connections so that they reach individual homes in the neighborhoods once the government contract ends next year. The Equitable Internet Initiative, a project funded by private donors in Detroit, is using that model to bridge that city’s digital divide.

In late-May, Resilient Communities invited potential funders to a private informational session at the Point, followed by a tour of one location in Harlem.

“Right now, it’s about the getting the business owners set up,” said Mr. Lora. “The residents are next, and it will be easier because we’ll have the networks already in place.”

Making Networks Storm-Ready

Each small business will have a node mounted on the rooftop. The node contains a point-to-point link that allows for wireless communication among other small businesses within the network. The network offers free public Wi-Fi to people within 600 feet of a small business on the network. Three main features ensure the network is storm-ready.

  • Backup Battery Pack
  • Backup battery packs are alternative power devices used when the power goes out. The battery pack is stored in the bottom of the node and automatically kicks in when there is a power failure.

  • Multiple Backhaul
  • A backhaul connection is needed to access to the global internet. A backhaul transmits data over an alternative path when the normal route is unavailable. In the Resilient Networks project, each neighborhood network will have two to three sources of additional backhaul, so when one backhaul goes down, the nodes will automatically tap into another one within the network.

  • Intranet
  • Users that sign on to the network are redirected to a page that offers a host of services, including a local server powered by a compact computer that stores local webpages, a WordPress page and a chat room where people can communicate during a natural disaster.

NOTE: This article was updated to explain the origins of an network project that was a response to Hurricane Sandy. The project, Resilient Networks NYC, was inspired by a similar one in Red Hook. I was not a replica.

The article was also updated to correct the name of the former deputy director of the Resilient Communities program. She is Teresa Basilio Gaztambide, not Teresa Gaztambide.

A project funded by private donors in Detroit is the Equitable Internet Initiative, not the Equitable Internet Connection.

And it is Resilient Communities, not New America, that is helping organizations find new funding sources.