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Amateur Radio Volunteers Respond to Historic Hurricane Irma:

from The ARRL Letter on September 14, 2017
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Amateur Radio Volunteers Respond to Historic Hurricane Irma:

Hurricane Irma is history, but the recovery continues. ARRL West Central Florida (WCF Section Manager Darrell Davis, KT4WX -- who is also Hardee County Emergency Coordinator -- reported that the storm's eye passed over the Hardee County emergency operations center just before midnight EDT on September 10. The storm, which left death and destruction in its wake, eventually moved inland, carrying with it heavy rainfall and consequent additional flooding. By mid-week, FEMA had flagged most of the Florida peninsula for "significant river flooding," imminent or occurring. Irma also has left many in Florida without electrical power.

Davis said he was grateful for the Ham Aid equipment -- four hand-held transceivers and one mobile transceiver -- that ARRL sent to Florida as Irma's arrival was imminent. The once-powerful and persistent Category 5 hurricane made landfall near Naples, Florida, on September 10 as a Category 2 storm, after raking the Florida Keys.

Thirty Florida counties were under mandatory evacuation orders, and thousands took advantage of Red Cross shelters.

SKYWARN nets activated in the West Central Florida Section and elsewhere to gather severe weather information, and Florida's Statewide Amateur Radio Network (SARnet conducted a coordination and assistance net to help communicate between the county EOCs and the State EOC and to provide assistance to Amateur Radio operators in other ways, time permitting. The priority during the weekend was tactical shelter communication, EOC communication, and SKYWARN nets as Hurricane Irma approached.

"At our own EOC, the data from APRS stations was very important to our decision makers in the EOC to allow Fire and EMS back on the road, post storm," Davis reported. "Our repeater went off the air due to power failure. I went to reverse and listened to the repeater input and transmitted on the output, and we maintained communications through the storm."

Davis said the Ham Aid mobile transceiver went to the area's special needs shelter, primarily due to the fact that a handheld's signal was hampered by the building.

Northern Florida SM and Florida Emergency Support Functions 2 (ESF2 -- communications) Liaison Steve Szabo, WB4OMM, said on September 13 that the Florida EOC may need Amateur Radio operators to provide communication support in the Florida Keys. Volunteers will need a dual-band handheld with earphone/headset, external gain antenna, spare batteries, and a charger. Food and sleeping quarters are available, but responders must be self-sufficient for other personal needs. Deployment requests will vary.

"Do not self-deploy," Szabo stressed. "These missions will be filled through the State of Florida EOC ESF2 Liaison." Interested hams should register, selecting "Casework/Recovery" under Type of Work, and "Amateur Radio" under Volunteer Skills. Potential volunteers will be notified and can accept or decline an assignment. Volunteers may be required to pass a background check.

The Salvation Army Team Emergency Network (SATERN http://www.satern.otg) was on extended monitoring status from September 6 until September 13 for Hurricane Irma.

The Hurricane Watch Net (HWN) stood down on September 11 after more than 6 days of activation for Irma as well as for hurricanes José and Katia. "Once Irma was downgraded to a Tropical Storm, our focus shifted to collecting post-storm reports and handling emergency and priority traffic only," HWN Manager Bobby Graves, KB5HAV, said. He anticipated that nets such as the HWN would "be busy for days" handling health-and-welfare, emergency, and priority traffic. At mid-week, the HWN was at at Alert Level 2 -- Monitoring Mode, keeping an eye on now-Tropical Storm José.

As if Earth's weather was not bad enough already, an X-class solar flare at around midday on Sunday, September 10, hobbled the HF bands. The widespread communication blackout lasted for nearly 3 hours and "could not have happened at a worse time," Graves said. "But," he added, "we cannot control Mother Nature, only work around her." Earlier solar flares also had affected HF propagation.

The VoIP Hurricane Net activated over the weekend to track the impact of Irma as well as of Hurricane Katia, which made landfall on the coast of southeastern Mexico. The activation continued until September 11. A listing of reports received from Amateur Radio operators on the VoIP Hurricane Net, weather stations monitored across the region, and relayed reports from social media are on the VoIP Hurricane Net viewer.

Puerto Rico fared better than had been expected. "We were lucky that all we got were tropical storm winds," said Puerto Rico Section Public Information Coordinator Angel Santana-Diaz, WP3GW, adding that the storm did down some trees on the island. While electrical power was up, there was still no water, Santana said on September 11.

"Some repeater systems did operate without problems," Santana-Diaz said. "Our Section Emergency Coordinator remained in contact with the Red Cross," he said, and on September 9, ham volunteers went to the island of Culebra to establish HF communication there to keep in touch with the Red Cross office in San Juan, where ARRL Puerto Rico Section Manager Oscar Resto, KP4RF, was stationed. More than 350 Puerto Rico residents took advantage of Red Cross shelters, while another 150 or so evacuated to shelters in the US Virgin Islands. Santana-Diaz said the Friendly Net and Caribbean Emergency Weather Net (CEWN were active too.

In Cuba, Irma caused destruction from one end of the island to the other. Cuban Amateur Radio Federation (FRC) information officer Joel Carrazana Valdés, CO6JC, said some 1,200 radio amateurs from all over Cuba "were active at the disposal of the defense councils, providing one of the more valuable and necessary services."

Radio Miami International (WRMI) reported on its Facebook page that Hurricane Irma did extensive damage to the station's studio/transmitter site in Okeechobee, Florida.

"Two antenna towers are down and many poles holding transmission lines are also down. Power went out at around 2030 UTC Sunday, and it may not be restored for days. Meanwhile, all transmitters are off the air," WRMI reported.

"We are off the air since Sunday night," WRMI Manager Jeff White told ARRL. With internet service also out, the station doesn't even have a livestream outlet. The Okeechobee site includes 14 transmitters (most of them 100 kW) and 23 antennas beamed in 11 different directions around the globe.

As Irma stormed the Caribbean, Amateur Radio was a crucial link in the US Virgin Islands. Section Manager Fred Kleber, K9VV, was in contact with the Red Cross and getting considerable help from FEMA, the National Guard, and US Navy vessels. He told ARRL on September 7 that responders were in search-and-rescue mode on St. Thomas, St. John's, and St. Croix -- all of which were severely impacted. Work continued on evacuating people from the islands in St. Thomas Harbor, damaged hospitals, and other buildings, and providing shelter. Traffic was being passed from Kleber's location to stations in Puerto Rico and to the Hurricane Watch Net, but solar flares compromised communication.

W1AW at ARRL Headquarters was in monitoring mode through last Saturday and activated on Sunday.

In Irma's wake, radio amateurs in the Eastern Caribbean have been passing information into and out of the affected area, Eric Mackie, 9Z4CP, told ARRL on September 12. The Caribbean Emergency and Weather Net (CEWN) has been using 7.162 MHz, 7.188 MHz, and 3.815 MHz, and has requested clear frequencies.


The ARRL Letter

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