Ham radio volunteers help re-establish communications after Katrina

Some 700 operators are already at work, with more on the way

Katrina Coverage
Volunteer ham radio operators are coming to the aid of relief agencies and emergency officials to help with badly needed communications in areas of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi ravaged early last week by Hurricane Katrina.

With power still out in much of the region and telephone service restored in limited areas (see "Cell operators restore some network service in New Orleans") of New Orleans, the Mississippi cities of Biloxi and Gulfport, and other hard-hit areas, ham radio operators have been asked by the American Red Cross and other agencies to supplement communications at more than 200 storm shelters in Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

Some 700 ham radio volunteers from around the nation are already at work helping in the efforts, with more on the way, said Allen Pitts, a spokesman for the 157,000-member American Radio Relay League Inc. (ARRL), a nationwide amateur radio organization based in Newington, Conn. "This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint," Pitts said. "We have people there; we have more people coming."

On Sunday, the American Red Cross asked for about 500 more radio operators to assist at shelters and food kitchens set up to aid evacuees, he said. The volunteers are driving to needed areas and meeting with officials at staging areas in Montgomery, Ala., and in Oklahoma and Texas, where they are being dispatched to disaster shelters, Pitts said. The ham radio operators travel to the disaster areas using their own vehicles and pay their own way, he said.

Many of the volunteers sprung into action even before the storm struck the Gulf Coast, broadcasting as part of a "Hurricane Watch-Net" three days before deadly Hurricane Katrina slammed into the coast on Aug. 29, Pitts said.

Ham radio equipment can be used in disaster areas even when power is out and phone lines, relays and other communications systems are down because the radios run on their own battery or generator power, Pitts said. "Each one is a complete transmission and reception center unto itself," he said. "It works when other stuff is broken. You give an amateur radio operator a battery, a radio and a piece of a coat hanger and they'll find a way to make it work."

The volunteers carry their own fuel for their generators and bring all the equipment they need. Used ham radio systems can be bought for as little as $100, while newer, state-of-the-art hardware can run as high as $5,000, he said.

Ham radio operators can also use their equipment with laptop-based computer software to help re-establish e-mail access over the Internet to further assist with communications, Pitts said.

Other disaster assistance agencies, including the Salvation Army, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security, have also sought help from ham radio operators, Pitts said.

Late last week, the Washington-based Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency for volunteer service, announced a supplemental $100,000 grant to help ARRL volunteers with their expenses as they travel to and stay in the areas where hurricane victims are receiving assistance.

"With the breakdown of regular communication channels caused by the storm, the services provided by volunteer ham radio operators [are] vitally important, both to organizations and to individuals seeking to connect with loved ones," agency CEO David Eisner said in a statement. "We're pleased to be able to provide this extra assistance at this critical time."

The money will be used as part of the ARRL's "Ham Aid" program, established with a grant from the Corporation in 2002 to increase emergency certification training for ham radio operators.

Mary Hobart, chief development officer at the ARRL, said in a statement that this marks the first time in the ARRL's 90-year history that it will be able to reimburse some of the expenses incurred by members responding to disasters.

Volunteer radio operators will be at various sites for the duration of this disaster response, which could run into several weeks or months, according to the group.

Several ARRL members have already played key roles in the rescue efforts by connecting storm victims with emergency responders. In one such incident, a radio operator helped organize the rescue of 15 people stranded by floodwaters on the roof of a house in New Orleans, according to an ARRL statement.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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