By Barbara W. Carlson | Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor
NEWINGTON, CONN. - Richard Webb, an amateur radio operator, was asleep
on his air mattress at University Hospital in New Orleans during the
aftermath of hurricane Katrina when he was awakened at 5 a.m. by a
As Mr. Webb tells it, "He told me we had a lady who was in labor, who
had swum five blocks in that dirty, nasty water to the hospital
because she saw lights there - people with flashlights moving around."
Medical personnel said the baby needed to be delivered by caesarean
section. But the hospital had limited power, no running water, no way
to sterilize instruments, no way to perform such surgery. "We figured
we had two hours to get her medevacked out of there" before the lives
of mother and child would be in danger. "So I got on the radio and was
talking to a fellow who was with the Coast Guard auxiliary in
Cleveland, Ohio. I was working with him to arrange a medevac."
Choppers did arrive in time, Webb says. The woman and another patient
in need were evacuated successfully. Because the hospital had no
landing pad, the two had to be lifted out in baskets lowered from the
Webb, who lived in nearby Slidell, La., had been summoned to his
hurricane post by the hospital's head of emergency management. He's
one of about 750 amateur radio operators, or "hams," who have been in
and out of the five hurricane states since day one: Louisiana,
Mississippi, Alabama, and parts of northern Florida and Texas, where
evacuees are taking shelter. At least a thousand other hams
throughout the nation have been involved in some way, relaying
messages or assigning hams to various locations. They're all
volunteers, all unpaid, and they do what they do because they want to.
They train for disaster work; their FCC radio licenses mandate public
In typical disaster conditions, agencies like the Red Cross, Salvation
Army, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), and
local government bodies call on a state ham leader for volunteers when
usual channels of communication are down or jammed.
Katrina was different: It was far more vast. For the first time, the
nonprofit American Radio Relay League (ARRL) set up a website and
database to facilitate assigning hams.
Pamela Taylor, who works as an events manager in Hampton Beach, N.H.,
got a call from FEMA and headed south on Sept. 9. She was deployed to
a shelter in Ocean Springs, Miss., near Gulfport, before moving to New
Orleans. The shelter was a church, well-supplied and maintained, with
an abundance of volunteers. Her job was to radio for special needs,
anything from a doctor to paper plates. Nights sometimes brought an
emergency or two when a resident had to be removed, usually for
alcohol or drug problems.
Hams worked with the National Weather Service before and during the
hurricane. They still are receiving and transmitting messages in
shelters and other locations, alerting emergency agencies that a
community needs water, that an elderly woman needs an ambulance, or
that sanitary conditions are in crisis.
An estimated 600,000 FCC-licensed amateur radio operators live in the
United States; about 162,000 are members of the ARRL, which was
founded in 1904 and is located here in Newington, Conn. Nearby
Hartford is where Hiram Percy Maxim, the father of amateur radio,
experimented at sending messages across the city and then relaying
them across the country. Long before e-mail, there was amateur
radio. It evolved over the last century so that today, ham operators
communicate with one another around the world. Allen Pitts, for
example, the ARRL's media-relations manager, says he has spoken to
fellow hams in 213 foreign countries or "political entities."
That's the hobby part of hamdom. The serious and vital part is seen in
the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES). Trained ham operators are
ready with their "go kits" of equipment, batteries, and energy
bars. ARRL coordinates the work of the emergency operators. Hams were
at ground zero in New York within hours, they were in Florida for the
multiple hurricanes last year, and they handled communications in the
Northeast blackout of 2003.
Hams are volunteers. When they set sail for disasters, they pay their
own way. Sometimes employers give them a paid leave or reimburse
expenses. Hams' sacrifices are real, but the rewards are often
Mark Conklin of Tulsa got time off as a sales manager for an appliance
company to relay messages. At first he handled communications between
the state department of emergency management and the highway patrol.
Next he was assigned to the 1,200 evacuees transplanted to an Oklahoma
National Guard camp. At the camp, he talked to an elderly woman who
was crying because she was happy -- "communications" had been able to
get a pair of glasses for her. "For the first time in a week," she
said, "I can see."
Copyright 2005 The Christian Science Monitor.
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