In the small basement of a nondescript building on West Worley Street, two men sit at a long workbench covered in radios, wires and small black boxes, all interconnected and adorned with an array of knobs, switches and buttons. A sharp static hiss permeates the room as one of the men delicately adjusts the frequency of the radio stationed in front of him, searching for other operators across the country.
The two men, Dewey Bennett and Bob Jett, are amateur radio operators and members of the Central Missouri Radio Association. While their hobby usually consists of conversing with other radio operators from around the country and around the world, once in a while their purpose becomes much greater.
The two men, joined by CMRA members Brian Swartz and Don Moore, are doing what they can to assist those affected by Hurricane Katrina.
“We are taking messages from local folks from Missouri who have relatives in the area,” Moore said. “Then we can send an amateur radio message through that says, ‘Please find out if this person is still there. If so, are they OK?’”
Moore said some operators in the disaster area decided not to evacuate but stayed to help.
“There are some using voice and Morse code in and around the New Orleans area,” he said.
Philip Urquiola, CMRA member and Missouri net manager, explained why amateur radio, also known as ham radio, can be an essential resource in times of crisis.
“It’s the only means of communication with the power out and other means of communication out,” Urquiola said. “When there is an earthquake or hurricane or calamity of any type, we’re there to set up communications.”
At 5:45 every evening, operators from all nine of the amateur radio districts in Missouri check in with each other. Recently, their main focus has been helping those in the hurricane-affected area. While checking in with different members, not even pleasantries are exchanged before each member is asked of pertinent information.
With no urgent reports tonight, conversation shifts to Dale Huffington, a CMRA officer and president of the local chapter of the Red Cross. He is working with relief teams where the hurricane hit, and ham operators all over Missouri want to know how he’s doing.
After Jett fills everyone in on Huffington’s situation, conversation on the net turns to more leisurely activities and interests such as camping and locomotives. While Jett continues searching the net for any reports related to the hurricane, the other members turn to discussion of rising gas prices.
Amateur radios are useful in disaster area relief efforts because they can run on battery power and their antennae can be set up just about anywhere. There are 600,000 ham radio operators in the United States and 2 million worldwide.
Operators have not been called to the disaster area to help in large numbers yet because movement into the area is restricted.
Ham radios broadcast to other ham radios, but their signals are not picked up by the public. Depending on factors that include frequency, time of day and the location and activity of the sun and moon, they can send signals to operators on the other side of the world.
Houston-based ham radio operators were sent to assist in the evacuation of the New Orleans Superdome, according to the American Radio Relay League Web site.
One ham radio operator helped save 15 people clinging to a roof in New Orleans, according to the Web site. After a call from one of those stranded reached Oklahoma, a Red Cross radio operator in Tulsa contacted another ham operator in Portland, Ore. From there, the message traveled to Utah before finally reaching rescue crews back in Louisiana.
Hurricane Katrina is not the first disaster in which amateur operators have helped facilitate communication. In 2003, Hurricane Fabian hit Bermuda. After the hurricane, with all other means of communication knocked out, there was a single ham radio sending messages back to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.