“Force of 50” Amateur Radio Volunteers Deploying Throughout Puerto Rico
More than 20 of the “Force of 50” Amateur Radio volunteers now are deployed in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico as American Red Cross volunteers and wasting no time getting down to business. ARRL CEO Tom Gallagher, NY2RF, said the volunteers, in general, will provide communications for local law enforcement and utility managers; island-to-mainland health-and-welfare traffic, which has been ongoing, and contact with the more remote areas of Puerto Rico, cut off from the capital of San Juan and not heard from since the Hurricane Maria hit on September 20. Thanks to fire officials in Juncos, all Amateur Radio operators and Red Cross volunteers have been guaranteed safe passage, food, shelter, and water at any fire station on the island, if needed.
ARRL Emergency Preparedness Manager Mike Corey, KI1U, said volunteers initially gathered at the convention center in San Juan, which is serving as Puerto Rico Emergency Management Agency (PREMA) headquarters. Their first night, a local church offered accommodations, and volunteers slept on pews that had been pushed together.
According to one FEMA official, the White House situation room is extremely pleased and enthusiastic about the service Amateur Radio volunteers are providing in Puerto Rico.
Since the storm struck Puerto Rico, ARRL Section Manager Oscar Resto, KP4RF, and other volunteers have staffed VHF and HF nets at the American Red Cross temporary headquarters, despite damage to their own homes. The net covers nearly two-thirds of the island and has been handling traffic to and from the power company, Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica (Electric Power Authority — AEE), and state and local authorities. The electric distribution infrastructure suffered extreme storm damage, and power has remains out over most of the island. Twelve team members will be assigned to provide communication for engineers getting ready to repair the island’s power distribution centers.
The Red Cross Headquarters net has shifted to 24-hour operation, to be ready to assist in any emergency involving the Guajataca hydroelectric dam. In the wake of heavy rain over the weekend that caused the aging structure to crumble further, residents in the districts of Quebradillas, Isabela, and San Sebastián have been told to leave. A ham radio volunteer has been stationed in Quebradillas to provide emergency communication if needed and to maintain contact between AEE and its Monacillo control center.
An Amateur Radio station has been installed and an operator embedded at the Puerto Rico Emergency Operations Center (PREOC). Radio amateurs also have been asked to establish VHF communication capabilities at 51 hospitals throughout the island, so they can have direct contact with the PREOC. Local hams will staff that facility for now. The volunteer embedded at the PREOC is serving as liaison between the PREOC and the FEMA Emergency Support Function (ESF-2) task force, relaying information among the Red Cross, ARRL, FEMA, and the ESF-2 task force. An Amateur Radio team also is in Jacuo.
Two team members penetrated to the westernmost end of the island. “Team Oeste (Mayagüez)” (Western Team Mayagüez), as they are designated, are at a Red Cross shelter in Mayagüez, providing the only emergency communication link from that city to San Juan since the storm on September 20. They’ve also been in contact with the mainland via the SATERN, where W1AW was checked in, reporting that they are doing well. At this stage, that team has been getting a handle on the conditions and needs of those living in and around Mayagüez. Primary among those needs was water.
“The city water system has failed over the past 24 hours, and water is a critical need and the first item mentioned,” the pair said in an October 1 status update. They said non-perishable food items, extended-life dry milk, blankets, baby formula, and dust masks also made the list. They met with the medical staff set up at the Palacio de Recreacion y Deportes — a sports stadium in the París neighborhood of Mayagüez — and will confer with the mayor of Mayagüez today. The medical staff also provided the volunteers with an extensive list of needs to be passed on to the Red Cross as well as to FEMA and Puerto Rico’s Emergency Management Agency, as well as others who may be able to provide assistance.
“We were told that they are seeing ulcers, spider bites, patients needing oxygen, congestion and coughs,” they said. “They have not had any patients presenting with fevers or other signs of illness/disease related to sanitation however; with the failure of the municipal water system, that is a concern.”
An HF station with WinLink capability and a VHF/UHF station have been set up in the FEMA disaster field office, and volunteers have been reporting in by radio from around the island to post situation reports. Radio operators also will be posted at four power-generation facilities, at the request of the power company. Superacueducto, the water utility, has asked for several radio amateurs to help in restablishing water flow from Arecibo to San Juan. The volunteers also recruited another ham, a Red Cross volunteer.
Four ham radio volunteers have been positioned to accompany and provide VHF communication at Red Cross distribution centers on a daily basis. Two volunteers also were sent to Culebra Island to establish VHF and HF communication there, the first since the storm.