Ham radio operators settle in to help victims

Von Todd R.

Ham radio communications in areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina continue to improve as volunteers work around the clock to help relief organizations and state, local and federal authorities coordinate their efforts.

Dennis Motschenbacher, the sales and marketing manager at the American Radio Relay League Inc. (ARRL), who has been at an American Red Cross rescue staging area in Montgomery, Ala., since Tuesday night, remains in Montgomery, where he is organizing donations of radio equipment from manufacturers.

Motschenbacher had expected to be sent out yesterday into a storm-damaged area in Louisiana or Mississippi. But Red Cross Disaster Recovery Headquarters personnel asked him to stay behind to help them.

"The organizers have been using my expertise and contacts daily to get more equipment and supplies," said Motschenbacher, who works for the 157,000-member ARRL amateur radio group, which is based in Newington, Conn. It"s frustrating, he said, because he had hoped to get to the front lines, where communications remain spotty at best.

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

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

One of Motschenbacher"s fellow ARRL ham radio operators, has been in the thick of the storm zone since early this week. David R. Beatson, 32, owner of a small computer consulting business in Lake Wylie, S.C., arrived in Montgomery Monday afternoon and was sent to Ocean Springs, Miss., just outside Gulfport. Once there, Beatson helped set up a ham radio communications center in the local operations center organized by the Red Cross, and -- with the aid of several other volunteer ham operators -- has been helping relief workers get additional supplies and assistance for storm victims. The communications center is also helping victims in the hard-hit Pascagoula, Miss., area.

Beatson and other operators are communicating daily with ham operators at six other shelters in the area. "I didn"t expect to be running a whole communications center," he said Friday in an interview by cell phone. "All the logistics the Red Cross has to do behind the scenes are being done through our operations center." Nine two-person ham radio teams are assisting in the network they have built in the surrounding Ocean Springs and Jackson County area, he said.

While electrical power has mostly been restored in Jackson County, land-line telephones are still out, and cell phone service remains sporadic, he said. But Cingular Wireless LLC and T-Mobile repair crews have been on the scene working to restore service.

Because the radio volunteers are working from an operations center, there are no showers or kitchen facilities, Beatson said. They"re eating prepackaged MREs (meals ready to eat or military rations), getting occasional deliveries of water and are housed in a small one-room building that was once a senior citizens" center. Several desks and folding cots are clustered inside the room, along with radio equipment.

"I have a desk and a cot next to it where I sleep," Beatson said. "I keep the radio on in case there"s an emergency overnight."

The ham operators use a satellite dish obtained by the Red Cross for basic Internet access, and about nine people are in the building each day. Three people sleep there at night.

So far, the damage Beaton said he has seen has been horrific. On the road into town, he saw metal traffic signal poles that had been twisted into rubble by the hurricane. "I"ve seen boats in the middle of the main road, sitting there" after being moved by the storm"s massive winds, Beaton said. "I"ve seen some strange things."

Beatson and Motschenbacher will continue to provide regular reports on their experiences to Computerworld over the next several weeks.