Ham operator aids post-Katrina communications

Von Todd R.

After watching a steady stream of television coverage of the horrendous conditions victims of Hurricane Katrina endured in the deadly storm"s wake, ham radio operator Dennis Motschenbacher had had enough.

On Monday morning, the 57-year-old sales and marketing manager for the American Radio Relay League Inc., a nationwide amateur radio organization based in Newington, Conn., packed up his 5-year-old, four-door Toyota Camry and headed for Mississippi with food, water, camping gear -- and his trusty ham radio equipment. Once there, Motschenbacher will join some 700 other ham radio volunteers already posted in hurricane-ravaged areas to help provide communications between evacuee shelters and agencies bringing in food, water and other supplies.

In an interview by cell phone Wednesday from a staging center in Montgomery, Ala., Motschenbacher said he arrived last night and is waiting to be sent to a location somewhere in Mississippi by tomorrow.

"I"m here because of frustration, to be honest," Motschenbacher said. "I could see -- like a lot of Americans -- I could see this going on. I saw the slow response, and I was overwhelmed. I just told my wife, "I have to go.""

With power outages still widespread throughout much of the Gulf Coast region hardest hit by last week"s storm, and telephone service spotty at best in many areas, the American Red Cross and other agencies have asked ham radio operators to supplement communications at more than 200 storm shelters in Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

Early this week, the Red Cross asked for another 500 more radio operators to assist at shelters and food kitchens set up to aid evacuees in the area.

Motschenbacher said he has used his ham radio equipment to help victims of international disasters in the past, but those experiences meant providing help from the comfort of his home, thousands of miles away from the disasters. This time, he drove himself and his equipment -- including enough prepackaged camping food and water for two weeks -- so he could help people on the front lines without being a burden himself.

Ham radio equipment can be used even when power is out and phone lines, relays and other communications systems are down. The radios run on their own battery or generator power. A ham radio enthusiast since he was 13, Motschenbacher said his equipment can run off the 12-volt electrical system of his car or from AC power supplied by a generator at a disaster shelter, if that is available.

As he prepares to head into the depths of storm-ravaged Mississippi, Motschenbacher said he doesn"t know what he will find, nor is he sure of what communications he will have by cell phone. But he agreed to try to share his story with Computerworld in regular dispatches, provided reliable communications links can be established.