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It Seems to Us: The Next Time Could Be Different

09/29/2008

Gustav was eerily similar to Katrina and could have landed the same sort of blow on New Orleans. The volunteers in the ARRL field organization and the staff in Newington were ready for this worst-case scenario. One of the changes we made since 2005 was to hire Dennis Dura, K2DCD as full-time ARRL Emergency Preparedness & Response Manager. Using new teleconference facilities that we acquired after Katrina, prior to landfall Dennis organized regular conference calls so the volunteer leaders in the potentially affected areas could brief one another and coordinate among themselves. This also let us in Newington -- a staff team was present for each call -- know what external resources might be needed. We shipped several sets of Ham Aid "Go Kits" to staging locations in the Gulf area so the equipment could be put to use as soon as it might be needed; some gear saw service as soon as it arrived. Fortunately, Gustav's path took it west of New Orleans and spared the evacuated city the full force of its wind and waves.

Hanna kept the forecasters guessing where it might go as it meandered around the Turks & Caicos Islands. The storm finally decided to bypass Florida and move up the Eastern Seaboard. ARRL preparations were along the same lines as for Gustav, with the ultimate focus on the field organizations in North and South Carolina. Except for local flooding and power outages, Hanna did not leave too much of a mark -- but already there was another storm brewing that would turn out to be the worst of the lot.

For three days, Hurricane Ike raked Cuba from east to west before heading toward Texas. Initially the forecasters could not pinpoint what area would be hit the hardest, but eventually Ike took dead aim on Galveston and Houston -- the fourth most populous city in the country. Once again we prepared for the worst-case scenario, relying mainly on the same volunteers who had put in many hours for Gustav less than two weeks earlier (and some of whom had been involved in the early stages of Hanna). The voices on the conference calls were becoming pretty familiar!

Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula will never look the same as they did before September 13. Houston itself experienced widespread but relatively minor damage, although the disruptions to normal life caused by massive power outages are continuing as these words are being written, ten days later. Ike's effects are still being felt many miles from Galveston Bay. Thousands of dislocated people are still being sheltered and fed -- some not yet allowed to return home, and many with no homes left to return to. In addition, a great swath of the country's midsection felt the wind and rain of Ike's remnants. On top of that, at the same time the hurricane was hitting the Texas coast the remnants of a Pacific storm were dumping torrents on parts of West Texas.

Despite this extraordinary chain of meteorological events, normal communications facilities held up pretty well. This was in sharp contrast to Katrina, which wiped out a large part of the communications infrastructure of southern Louisiana and Mississippi. Amateur Radio operators and equipment were in place and ready at many Emergency Operations Centers before the 2008 hurricanes struck, but by and large were not called upon to supply critical communications links. Cellphone providers were able to maintain service to most of their customers, again in sharp contrast to Katrina. When the voice circuits became overloaded, text messages could still get through. At least until their cellphone batteries ran down, most people were able to call for assistance and to stay in touch with loved ones even if their power was off and the landlines were down.

This is good news. At least in the telecommunica-tions field, Katrina's lessons were well learned. Our hats are off to the communications professionals -- many of them hams -- who made it happen.

Does this mean that Amateur Radio no longer has a role to play? Absolutely not! Emergency managers must have the assurance that backup communications will be there when it's needed. Cash-strapped non-governmental disaster response organizations continue to rely on Amateur Radio volunteers to support their mission of delivering aid directly to the affected public.

Amateurs in the affected areas received many communications assignments and were able to carry them out with available personnel. However, it is somewhat sobering that we were not able to assemble a longer list of qualified volunteers willing to be deployed, had they been needed, from adjacent areas. We will be working to improve this in the future.

Even more sobering is the thought of what could have happened -- and what no doubt will happen sometime -- if things had been just a bit different. Gustav could have made a direct hit on New Orleans. Hanna could have swept across Florida. Ike came ashore as a Category 2 hurricane; had it been a Category 4 or 5, literally millions of people would have been forced from their homes.

Not every hurricane season is going to be like 2005. Not every storm is going to be a Katrina. But when they are, we must be prepared.

It is better to be ready and not needed, than to be needed and not ready.

David Sumner, K1ZZARRL Chief Executive Officer

David Sumner, K1ZZ
ARRL Chief Executive Officer



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