Hams Respond to Calls for Assistance as Ice Storms Pummel New England
As a major ice storm -- accompanied by freezing rains, flooding and strong winds -- severely impacted New England on Thursday evening into Friday morning, ARES®, RACES, SKYWARN and MARS operators worked together to respond to calls for assistance from served agencies and to participate in the recovery phase of the storm. As the storm progressed into the weekend, ice accumulations up to 1.5 inches were common throughout a very large area of Western, Central and Northeast Massachusetts, as well as parts of New Hampshire and Maine.
"After this summer's severe weather with its unusually historic number of events, we now face the worst ice storm we've seen in recent memory in portions of Southern New England," said Eastern Massachusetts ARES Section Emergency Coordinator Rob Macedo, KD1CY. "It became clear that we were dealing with a rapidly deteriorating situation by early Friday morning. SKYWARN weather spotters relayed data that clearly to the NWS, saying whole towns and cities were losing electricity." Macedo also serves as SKYWARN Coordinator for the Taunton office of the National Weather Service (NWS).
Macedo said that information gleaned from weather spotters was fed not only to the National Weather Service office but also to Emergency Management officials in the area. "This provided the situational awareness and disaster intelligence required to rapidly upgrade the response efforts," he said. According to Macedo, SKYWARN weather spotters relayed more than 220 reports of icing damage and power outages.
At the height of the storm, almost 400,000 customers in Massachusetts lost power. Phone service, particularly landline service, was disrupted in some areas. New Hampshire was "also very hard hit by the storm," Macedo said. "That state reported even more power outages than Massachusetts." As of late Sunday evening, almost 140,000 were without power in Massachusetts with over double that number in New Hampshire. Southern New England received 2-4 inches of rainfall; isolated higher amounts caused river, stream and urban flooding. Strong winds in the region resulted in tree and wire damage, as well as coastal flooding along the shoreline.
Macedo said: "This ice storm was severe, but we also had to deal with these other impacts. Those Amateur Radio operators involved did remarkably well to service all of the needs in the response phase of this storm. As we moved into the recovery phase, hams assisted in shelter communications and EOC operations in several communities across the two ARRL Sections in Massachusetts and other Sections in New England."
Eastern and Western Massachusetts
Macedo said that together with Western Massachusetts ARES Section Emergency Coordinator John Ruggerio, N2YHK, he has worked on supplying the various served agencies with Amateur Radio operators when situations -- like the ice storm -- happen. Massachusetts State RACES Radio Officer Tom Kinahan, N1CPE, has also sought support for State EOC staffing needs. "We have worked together as one team and like we were all in one Section," Macedo said. "This is the worst incident John and I have faced as Section Emergency Coordinators."
"The Eastern Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts Sections -- led by their Section Emergency Coordinators in this response -- worked as one," said ARRL Emergency Preparedness and Response Manager Dennis Dura, K2DCD. "There were no boundaries -- it was a seamless mission they continue to react to. Even though the conditions were very difficult and the icing was widespread, individual hams impacted with the power outages responded to the calls for assistance. Creative thinking was the name of the game when repeaters went down. Simplex reigned, and other repeaters on the fringes of their coverage areas were utilized."
In Western Massachusetts, SEC John Ruggerio, N2YHK, said the Worcester Emergency Communications Team (WECT) and the Worcester EOC were activated at 2 AM Friday "to serve as a hub for communications in Central Massachusetts. Our ARES group went to great lengths to accomplish this activation." WECT continues to be active supporting their EOC, as well as shelter communications within Worcester, Macedo said. "WECT needed additional help, so an ARES unit in Eastern Massachusetts sent in a ham to assist late Sunday evening."
Macedo said the town of Gardner, Massachusetts requested ARES assistance for shelter communications and health and welfare traffic to offload overworked phones and public safety frequencies: "As Western Massachusetts ARES ran out of needs, we formed an ARESMAT (Amateur Radio Emergency Services Mutual Aid Team) to handle the need for Gardner EMA Director and ARES Emergency Coordinator Paul Topolski, W1SEX.
"Amateur Radio operators from the North and South Shore of Eastern Massachusetts assisted with operations for Western Massachusetts, fulfilling needs from Saturday night into Monday morning," Ruggerio recounted. "ARES units in the Western Massachusetts Section will provide support during the day on Monday in Franklin County, Massachusetts. The need there could last through Tuesday, and we will continue to utilize resources between our Sections for support." Ruggerio said. The ARES unit in Franklin County ARES has also been supporting operations at the EOC in the town of Heath, as well as shelters in that area.
Macedo said there is a possibility that the Massachusetts State EOC operations may need to be staffed through Wednesday; staffing needs have currently been met through midnight on Tuesday. "We will continue to provide support for as long as requested to support the state EOC," Kinahan said.
Dave Robbins, K1TTT, in Peru, Massachusetts, reported that the ice storm caused severe damage to his antenna farm. "Around 1 AM on Friday," Robbins said, "all antennas were still intact except the 160 meter inverted-Ls -- their pulley broke -- and the Beverages. The Beverages had pulled so hard that they broke the shack end of the 6×6 post at ground level. This jerked off the F connectors on the coax for the transformers. About midday on Friday, the wind came up and broke the elements off the top 40 meter beam -- all four of them on one side so it tipped over the other way into the guy wires. This also started breaking elements on the 20 and 15 meter Yagis, bending them like horseshoes."
He continued: "There was more wind on Friday night, and it switched around to come from the west. Saturday morning revealed that the bottom 40 meter boom brace had failed on one end, breaking the boom. It is now leaning badly and most likely has damaged the ring rotor due to the unbalanced load. Later on, one of the booms on the European 20 meter antenna broke, too."
Macedo said that as of Monday, tree and utility crews are still dealing with areas that are completely cut off from other cities and towns. They are currently working from central locations and working outward to restore power and services.
New Hampshire and Maine
New Hampshire Assistant Section Emergency Coordinator David Colter, WA1ZCN, said that ARES units in New Hampshire ARES were active, supporting SKYWARN and ARES efforts in the region. "The National Weather Service offices in Gray, Maine and Taunton, Massachusetts were both active on the air and via EchoLink, actively gathering reports. Gray has been on Mt Washington, Gilford and Gunstock repeaters, while Taunton was on the Hollis repeater. I encourage members in the affected areas to forward reports to the NWS offices, as well as the State EOC," he said.
Early Friday morning, Colter said that Hillsborough County was fully activated, providing communications between the EOC in Amherst and the State EOC. "That town lost most of its phone communications, but EOCs in Lydeborough, Washington, Kensington and Hampton were open. The Western Rockingham County New Hampshire ARES provided support to the EOC in Derry, and by 9 that evening, operations were secured and phones were once again operational."
John Kaufmann, W1FV, said that Matt Strelow, KC1XX, in Mason, New Hampshire, reported that he had "major antenna damage with ice up to 1.5 inches thick -- by far the worst he's ever seen at his place, which gets more than its share of winter weather. Two of three 40 meter Yagis have been destroyed, and antennas on all bands -- 160-10 meters -- have been damaged or completely lost. So far, all of the towers are still standing, but there is some concern about trees coming down on guy wires."
Jerry Hume, K1WTX, SKYWARN Coordinator at the NWS office in Gray, stated that Amateur Radio operations began there around 3 PM on Thursday, going through Friday morning: "More than 100 reports were brought in via Amateur Radio alone, and Tom Berman, N1KTA -- one of the forecasters at NWS Gray -- was active with the ham station at the Gray office using call sign WX1GYX." David Lowe, WE1U, also forwarded several reports to the National Weather Service office located in Caribou, Maine.
"It was our largest volume of radio traffic that we have handled in our two years of SKYWARN operations," Hume said. "Response from the ham community was much heavier than we usually see, with many new spotters joining in. I want to believe that this resulted from our efforts promoting SKYWARN in the weekly Nets, as well as the help and collaboration by all in improving the program."