Amateur radio volunteers help storm-ravaged Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands

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09/25/2017

Both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands suffered major damage from Hurricane Maria, although Puerto Rico was the hardest hit, and it was there that amateur radio began to fill a huge void in telecommunications. According to the FCC, the service is unavailable for 96% of cell phone sites in Puerto Rico, and it is completely unavailable for sites in 78 counties in Puerto Rico. In the US Virgin Islands, the overall percentage is 66%.

“The situation in Puerto Rico is very devastating throughout the island,” Puerto Rico SM Oscar Resto, KP4RF, said over the weekend. “Communications by landline or mobile phone are almost nil.” Repeaters are down, he said, and radio amateurs are using the 2-meter simplex frequency of 146.52 MHz, although he hopes to have a few local amateur radio repeaters “partially working with damaged antennas”. With police repeaters also down, law enforcement is also using 2 meters.

The American Red Cross headquarters suffered the loss of its emergency generator due to flooding. A temporary ARC headquarters has internet and cell service, he said.

Over the weekend, the American Red Cross (ARC) asked the ARRL to help recruit 50 radio amateurs who can help record, enter and submit information about disaster survivors into the ARC system. Safe and Well. This request was met today. In the nearly 75-year relationship between the ARRL and the ARC, this is the first time such a request for assistance on this scale has been made.

Resto says radio amateurs also helped Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Autoridad de Energía Electrica) using 146.52 MHz to dispatch line crews and coordinate fuel deliveries for authority offices at the Monacillo control center and several power stations. “The electrical system is completely shut down for the whole island,” he said. Drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities are also very scarce. Resto said Puerto Rico needed “andeverything… solar panels, repeaters and, most importantly, transmission lines and antennas. Some basic or mobile VHF/UHF radios, a 1-2 kW generator. However, fuel for generators as well as vehicles is running out in Puerto Rico.

Radio amateurs in Puerto Rico operate fast and busy ad hoc health and wellness traffic networks on 7.175 and 14.270 MHz, as does the Salvation Army Team Emergency Network (SATERN) on 14.265 MHz. Networks process outbound traffic only. Resto said verifying the well-being of individuals usually requires trying to visit them in person, as telecommunications are down almost everywhere.

Gerry Hull, W1VE, reports Herb Perez, KK4DCX, in San German, was working 6-8 hours a day, working with dozens of operators, taking numbers and calling families. “I sent at least 200 messages with him,” said Hull, who has also been active on the SATERN network. Another station in Puerto Rico was solar powered.

“The family appeals are very moving,” he told the ARRL. “I get all kinds of calls day and night for people desperate to hear from their family in Puerto Rico, but the hams can’t deliver inbound traffic.” He directs them to Red Cross website submit inquiries. “A lot of competitors help out with their big stations,” he said.

U.S. Virgin Islands branch manager Fred Kleber, K9VV, said the USVI was in much better shape than Puerto Rico. “They were really harshly criticized,” he said. Kleber said he still had antennae that weren’t destroyed by the storm, and he could hit Puerto Rico 2 meters from his position. It also announced plans to deploy around 20 wireless mesh network nodes in the US Virgin Islands.

“We used every trick in our comms bag to make things work,” Kleber said.

Kleber said the images in the news and social media do not do justice to the utter devastation, which radio amateurs in the Caribbean also face at home and in their communities. He told the ARRL late last week that trees, utility poles, transformers and phone lines are down everywhere, debris is blocking roads and it takes a long time to get to anywhere. He and others staffed the 24/7 emergency communications center.

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