Ham operator reaches Red Cross staging area

Von Todd R.

As he prepared to drive later Thursday into a Hurricane Katrina-ravaged community in Mississippi or Louisiana with his ham radio equipment to help re-establish reliable communications, Dennis Motschenbacher has already been hard at work helping victims of the massive storm.

Since arriving Tuesday night at the staging area set up by the American Red Cross in Montgomery, Ala., Motschenbacher has been busy arranging donations of ham radio gear from manufacturers around the world so more radio operators can come to the aid of storm victims.

"We"re continuing to make progress with the American Red Cross," Motschenbacher, who is sales and marketing manager at the American Radio Relay League Inc. (ARRL) ham radio organization, said Thursday in a cellphone interview. The Red Cross Disaster Recovery Headquarters (DRHQ) operation was set up last week in Montgomery on the grounds of a vacant Kmart.

The donated radio equipment, coming from manufacturers in Japan, Australia, Europe and the U.S., will be sent to the ARRL"s Newington, Conn., headquarters, where it will be packaged into ready-to-use kits and sent to communities that have been torn apart by the hurricane.

From the staging area, dozens of ARRL members have already been dispatched to storm-ravaged communities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to help establish communications between evacuee shelters and supply and relief organizations.

"Amateur radio operators are providing links back to the DRHQ in Montgomery on the status of and the number of people at the shelters, what supplies they need and what emergencies they may have until landlines and cellphones are usable again," Motschenbacher said. In some locations, local evacuee centers have been established but no one has been able to communicate with them yet, he said.

Ham volunteers are "telling us they"re OK, that they"re tired but that they"re hanging in there," he said of the volunteer radio operators, who have traveled to the area from all over the country. "They"re having to be pretty resourceful. The shelter managers [often] don"t even know they"re coming" because of the lack of communications in many areas.

Some evacuee centers have been able to communicate with the DRHQ through messages relayed by police departments or the military, but often the first time that shelter workers know a radio operator volunteer is coming is when they arrive on-site with their gear, he said.

"More than three-quarters of them know they"ll be walking in without any advance notice of their arrival," Motschenbacher said. "They"re supposed to be as self-sufficient as possible until they can connect with headquarters."

Some 700 ham radio volunteers have already been posted in hurricane-ravaged areas to help provide emergency communications since late last week.