Mississippi Hams Reflect on Hurricane Gustav, Prepare for Hanna and Ike
After several days of harrowing watching and waiting for Hurricane Gustav to make landfall, the storm slammed into southeast Louisiana Monday afternoon, leaving flooding, wind damage and power outages in its wake and evacuees eager to go home. As Amateur Radio operators across the area moved from an emergency response stance to clean-up, evaluation and repair, the need for some changes to operations and equipment became clear, as well as the vastly improved response as compared to Hurricane Katrina.
At Poplarville, Missisippi -- county seat of Pearl River County -- Emergency Operations Center Communications Officer David Moore, N5ELI, said, "We have some stuff to do, but it's not bad." He noted a defective antenna that was discovered during operations for Gustav, as well as a few operational details that need to be worked out before future events. But, noted ARRL Mississippi Section Public Information Coordinator Larry Wagoner, N5WLW, who manned the Emergency Operations Center in Picayune, Mississippi, essential services were provided in spite of the problems, as contact was maintained with the shelters in the area as well as other individuals and agencies needing assistance.
Harrison County Emergency Coordinator and District Emergency Coordinator for the Gulf Coast District Tom Hammack, W4WLF, echoed that reaction, noting the heavier damage to his coastal community: "The harbors are torn up," he observed, saying that a small tornado had been sighted near the port, which reportedly damaged a few buildings in the area and knocked out power for a time.
"We had communications with the Coast Guard representatives, on 2 meters, as well as marine VHF," Hammack said. "We had hams at other locations as well." He noted that Ed Byrd, KA5VFU, had the radio links to the area hospitals working, too. "In general it went pretty fair," he said. "This was a cakewalk for us compared to Katrina," Hammack noted, adding, "But the further west went you go, it wasn't any cakewalk at all. Hancock County (located due west of Harrison County) got hit pretty hard."
North of the coast, Tim Purvis, N5UDK, Emergency Coordinator for Stone County and Assistant Emergency Coordinator for the Gulf Coast District noted that one mobile home was destroyed in the storm. "All in all, it went real well," he said. Like the other officials in the area, he said the storm was a learning exercise for the Amateur Radio community. "We need to get our repeater to a higher location and we need to get more people with emergency Yagis." He said in some cases, hams in outlying areas of the county had a hard time making it into the repeater during the storm. "These are people who may have lost or taken down their antennas," he said, "and they were trying to operate on a mag mount on top of a refrigerator from 20 miles away."
One problem noted by several officials in the area was the signal propagation from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MSEMA) office near Jackson. "A new antenna up there would help," said one. "We had a real hard time copying signal from MSEMA," said another.
Local hams were not the only ones learning lessons from the storm. Purvis noted that while the MSEMA official at the Stone County Emergency operations Center was familiar with Amateur Radio, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) representative did not know anything about ham radio and the service that hams provide before the storm. By the end of operations Tuesday, she had quite an education, Purvis said, noting that she was not only very impressed with what hams can do, but now wants to become licensed as an Amateur Radio operator herself and is very interested in SKYWARN operations. "We have a feather in our cap on that one," Purvis said.
SKYWARN operations went well across the region, as hams from all over the southern Mississippi area called in to report sightings of severe weather and damage from the storm. "Like you (in Pearl River County), we were inundated by warnings and reports," Purvis said, adding, "I just wish we could get all those people to sign in on a regular basis."
Local officials said the area fared much better in Gustav than in 2005's Hurricane Katrina. "Compared to Katrina, we didn't lose any local communications, phone or Internet. In Katrina, they lost everything," said Purvis. "Our major function was communications with the shelters, storm spotting and being on standby for other services," he added.
Stone County had one shelter open, which closed early Tuesday. Those requiring longer stays were transferred to shelters in Picayune and Hattiesburg because the shelter location -- Stone County High School -- was needed for restoration on school. The Stone County shelter housed about 50 people at one point. The shelter in Picayune had about 130 people maximum -- mostly from Louisiana, where nearby New Orleans and St Tammany Parishes remained closed Tuesday.
By Tuesday morning, crews were out evaluating damage to local power lines, cable TV, phone lines and trees, and hams were getting ready for the next time they are called to serve, keeping a close eye on Hurricane Hanna and Tropical Storm Ike -- already forming in the Atlantic.
Tom Hammack said it all: "We did what we were asked to do." -- Larry Wagoner, N5WLW, ARRL Mississippi Section Public Information Coordinator