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NetHope's Frank Schott leads the company's global disaster recovery efforts. Photo illustration: Rebecca Zisser

Few people have heard of NetHope, but lots of people have benefited from its work. The group acts as the tech arm for a consortium of 53 major global charities, working with tech giants to restore communications in the wake of natural disasters. These days, of course, NetHope is focused on Puerto Rico and other places devastated by recent hurricanes.

"You can't really get food, water, shelter where it needs to go if you can't communicate, certainly not at scale," NetHope global programs head Frank Schott told Axios. The group has dozens of people on the ground, including volunteers from some of the biggest companies in tech.

The bottom line: The extensive devastation of the electric grid is making things especially challenging, though the U.S. government and big companies are pitching in on efforts to restore cell service and internet connectivity.

Axios spoke to Schott about NetHope and the unique challenges facing Puerto Rico. Here are the highlights:

Just how bad are things?

"They are probably much worse than what we are seeing in the press," Schott said, noting that much of the island has been without power for nearly three weeks. "The absence of electricity makes it hard to maintain perishable foods so there is a food problem. There is a lack of clean water...The longer that goes on the more trouble that will be."

Garbage is piling up and the rainy season isn't over yet, which could lead to problems like water-borne diseases. "It's a problem that has the potential to get a lot worse."

What makes the situation in Puerto Rico different from past disasters?

"What's unique about Puerto Rico is that the electric grid was basically wiped out," Schott said. "Most emergencies [involve] repairing any power outages and standing back up electricity and power in a few places. In this case power is a challenge everywhere."

The other is that, since Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, NetHope finds itself working alongside the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

What do you make of Google offering to bring its internet-serving Loon balloons?

"It's massively interesting and we encourage that kind of activity," Schott said. "Even if it doesn't make a big difference for this emergency, it does position us well for follow-on emergencies."

You have workers from Facebook, Google, Cisco not only working together but living side-by-side in rented houses. How's that going?

"They get along great," Schott said. "The magnitude of the challenge to rebuild Puerto Rico is not anything any single company would be able to do on their own. It's almost collaboration out of necessity."

Go deeper

Advocates fret Roe v. Wade's 49th anniversary could be its last

Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Women's March Inc

As Saturday marks the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's landmark decision that legalized abortion access in the U.S., advocates warn the ruling is "more at risk now than ever."

The big picture: The Supreme Court in December heard a challenge to a Mississippi 15-week abortion ban that could throw Roe's survival into question, or at least narrow its scope.

Updated 10 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."