As Telecom Reels From Storm Damage, Ham Radios Hum

September 6, 2005 Page A19

MONROE, La. -- In a shelter here, 300 miles north of New Orleans, Theo McDaniel took his plight to a young man fiddling with a clunky, outdated-looking radio.

Mr. McDaniel, a 25-year-old barber, had evacuated New Orleans with his wife and two small children more than a week ago and since then had had no contact with his brother or his aunt. The last he heard, his 42-year-old aunt was clinging to her roof.

"We've got to get a message down there to help them," he said. The man at the radio sent the information to the emergency-operations center across town, which relayed it to rescue units in New Orleans. Later in the weekend, Mr. McDaniel learned that food and water were on the way to his trapped brother and his brother's young family. He had heard nothing about his aunt.

With Hurricane Katrina having knocked out nearly all the high-end emergency communications gear, 911 centers, cellphone towers and normal fixed phone lines in its path, ham-radio operators have begun to fill the information vacuum. "Right now, 99.9% of normal communications in the affected region is nonexistent," says David Gore, the man operating the ham radio in the Monroe shelter. "That's where we come in."

In an age of high-tech, real-time gadgetry, it's the decidedly unsexy ham radio -- whose technology has changed little since World War II -- that is in high demand in ravaged New Orleans and environs. The Red Cross issued a request for about 500 amateur radio operators -- known as "hams" -- for the 260 shelters it is erecting in the area. The American Radio Relay League, a national association of ham-radio operators, has been deluged with requests to find people in the region. The U.S. Coast Guard is looking for hams to help with its relief efforts.

Ham radios, battery operated, work well when others don't in part because they are simple. Each operator acts as his own base station, requiring only his radio and about 50 feet of fence wire to transmit messages thousands of miles. Ham radios can send messages on multiple channels and in myriad ways, including Morse code, microwave frequencies and even email.

Then there are the ham-radio operators themselves, a band of radio enthusiasts who spend hours jabbering with each other even during normal times. They are often the first to get messages in and out of disaster areas, in part because they are everywhere. (The ARRL estimates there are 250,000 licensed hams in the U.S.) Sometimes they are the only source of information in the first hours following a disaster. "No matter how good the homeland-security system is, it will be overwhelmed," says Thomas Leggett, a retired mill worker manning a ham radio in the operations center here. "You don't hear about us, but we are there."

Slidell, a town 30 miles northeast of New Orleans, was directly hit by the hurricane and remains virtually cut off from the outside world. One of the few, if not the only, communications links is Michael King, a retired Navy captain, operating a ham radio out of a Slidell hospital.

"How are you holding up, Mike?" asked Sharon Riviere into a ham-radio microphone at Monroe's operations center. She and her husband, Ron, who is the president of the Slidell ham-radio club, had evacuated before the storm to the home of some fellow ham-radio enthusiasts in Monroe. She said Mr. King had been working 20-hour days since the storm hit.

Crackling static and odd, garbled sounds followed her question to Mr. King. Then he replied: "It's total devastation here. I've got 18 feet of water at my house. Johnny's Café down there has water up to its roof."

Ms. Riviere asked about her own home, which is not far from Mr. King's. "It's full of mud," Mr. King replied. "Looks like someone's been slugging it out in there."

Ham radios are often most effective as one link in a chain of communication devices. Early last week, someone trapped with 15 people on a roof of a New Orleans home tried unsuccessfully to get through to a 911 center on his cellphone. He was able to call a relative in Baton Rouge, who in turn called another relative, Sybil Hayes, in Broken Arrow, Okla. Ms. Hayes, whose 81-year-old aunt was among those stranded on the New Orleans roof, then called the Red Cross in Broken Arrow, which handed the message to its affiliated ham-radio operator, Ben Joplin.

Via stations in Oregon, Idaho and Louisiana, Mr. Joplin got the message to rescue workers who were able to save the 15 people on the roof, according to the ARRL, based in Newington, Conn. "We are like the Pony Express," says the 26-year-old Mr. Gore, wearing black cowboy boots. "One way or the other, even by hand, we will get you the message."

Mr. Gore, who is in charge of the northeastern district of Louisiana for the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, has spent a lot of time the past week at the Monroe shelter, helping evacuees try to track missing friends and relatives.

Last Monday, Danita Alexander of Violet, La., came to a ham operator in the Monroe shelter asking about her 96-year-old grandfather, Willie Bright, who had been in a nursing home in New Orleans. The next day, she got word back from a ham operator that he had been safely transferred to a shelter near New Orleans. "We can't do enough of these," says Mark Ketchell, who runs the ARES branch in Monroe.

Nevertheless, the ham-radio community feels under threat. Telecom companies want to deliver broadband Internet connections over power lines, which ham-radio operators say distorts communications in the surrounding area. Since hams are "amateurs," there is little lobbying money to fight such changes, they add.

The hams also get little respect from telecommunications-equipment companies, such as Motorola Inc. "Something is better than nothing, that's right," says Jim Screeden, who runs all of Motorola's repair teams in the field for its emergency-response business. "But ham radios are pretty close to nothing." Mr. Screeden says ham radios can take a long time to relay messages and work essentially as "party lines," with multiple parties talking at once. Says Mr. Leggett at the Monroe operations center: "We are the unwanted stepchild. But when the s- hits the fan, who are you going to call?"