Amateur Radio Volunteers Filling Communication Gap in the Caribbean

Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands both suffered substantial damage from Hurricane Maria, although Puerto Rico took the bigger hit, and it is there that Amateur Radio has been filling a huge telecommunications gap. The FCC said at mid-week that 91% of cell telephone sites were still out in Puerto Rico. In the US Virgin Islands, the figure is about 60%.

ARRL Puerto Rico Section Manager Oscar Resto, KP4RF, with an unidentified ARC volunteer. [Photo courtesy of Oscar Resto, KP4RF]

“The situation in Puerto Rico is very devastating across all the island,” Puerto Rico SM Oscar Resto, KP4RF, said over the weekend. “Communications via land phone or mobiles are almost nil.” Repeaters are down, he said, and hams have been using the 2-meter simplex frequency of 146.52 MHz, although he hoped to see some repeaters come back on line (the 448.225 repeater in Bayamon has been online, handling health-and-welfare traffic).

With police repeaters also down, law enforcement has been using 2 meters as well.

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.

Red Cross volunteers have been busy assisting those affected by Hurricane Maria. [ARC photo]

Resto said radio amateurs have also been assistingPuerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority (Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica) using 146.52 MHz to dispatch line crews and coordinate fuel deliveries for the authority’s offices at the Monacillo Control Center and at several power plants. “The power system is fully shut down for all the island,” he said. Drinking water and proper sanitation facilities are also in very short supply. Resto said Puerto Rico needs “everything…solar panels, repeaters, and most important, transmission lines and antennas. Some base or mobile VHF/UHF radios, a 1- to 2-kW power generator.” Fuel for generators as well as vehicles is still in short supply on Puerto Rico.

Radio amateurs in Puerto Rico have been operating brisk and busy ad hoc health-and-welfare traffic nets on 7.175 and 14.270 MHz, as has the Salvation Army Team Emergency Network (SATERN) on 14.265 MHz. Gerry Hull, W1VE, reported that the net on 14.270 MHz has handled thousands of messages in the past week. Hull has also been active on the SATERN net. Today will mark Day 11 of the Hurricane Maria activation for SATERN, surpassing the 8-day SATERN operation for Hurricane Irma and making it the longest activation since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“Calls to family are very emotional,” he told ARRL. “I am getting all kinds of calls day and night for people desperate to hear about family in Puerto Rico, but hams cannot provide inbound traffic.” He directs them to the Red Cross website. “Lots of contesters are helping with their big stations,” he said.

ARRL USVI Section Manager Fred Kleber, K9VV.

US Virgin Islands Section Manager Fred Kleber, K9VV, said the USVI are in much better shape than Puerto Rico. “They really got slammed hard,” he said. Kleber said he still has antennas that were not destroyed by the storm and that he can hit Puerto Rico on 2 meters from his location. He also plans to deploy some 20 mesh wireless network nodes to provide connectivity between key USVI government locations. “We have used every trick in our comms bag of tricks to make stuff work,” he said.

Kleber said pictures in the news and social media don’t do justice to the wholesale devastation in parts of the Caribbean. In the USVI, he said, trees, power poles, transformers, and telephone lines were downed all over, and debris blocking roadways is making travel slow or altogther impossible. He and others have been staffing the emergency communications center 24/7.

The Caribbean Emergency and Weather Net (CEWN) on 7.188 and 3.815 MHz has focused its attention on the situation on Dominica.

“Truly I think that the regional agencies were not ready for a calamity of this magnitude,” Kumar Persaud, J85K, one of the CEWN net controllers said last weekend. “The CEWN operators have ended up filling the communications gap for the agencies, without any prior briefing.”