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Radio Amateurs Play a Role in Separate Storm Responses

10/20/2014

Amateur Radio volunteers activated on opposite ends of the US late last week and over the weekend as separate hurricanes struck Bermuda and Hawaii. Both regions were prepared and fared well with no deaths, serious injuries, or major property damage reported.

Hurricane Gonzalo

Hurricane Gonzalo, the stronger of the two storms, was a Category 3 hurricane when it made a near-direct hit on Bermuda on Friday, October 17. The Hurricane Watch Net (HWN) and the VoIP Hurricane Net (VoIPWX) were active gathering ground-level weather information from the island and funneling it to the National Hurricane Center’s WX4NHC. Storm forecasters at the NHC use reports from radio amateurs to better predict a storm’s path or intensity.

The HWN opened on Thursday, October 16, and remained in continuous operation until Saturday, October 18 — some 41 hours all told. The net used a primary frequency of 14.325 MHz and switched to 7.268 MHz to accommodate changing band conditions.

It was a report from John [Stevens], VP9NI, that let us know the eye had made landfall on Bermuda,” HWN Manager Bobby Graves, KB5HAV, reported. “His report made the 9 PM AST Tropical Cyclone Update.” Graves said VP9NI’s reports confirmed barometric pressure observations by Hurricane Hunter aircraft, and the NHC mentioned his call sign in its update. VP9NI’s battery finally gave out just before midnight on Saturday, he added.

Only a weekend earlier, Tropical Storm Fay had hit Bermuda, and Graves said he learned during the Gonzalo activation that Fay had dealt Bermuda a bigger blow than he’d first heard. “Many hams had lost their antennas,” he said, while other ham’s antennas were seriously damaged. Some radio amateurs on Bermuda quickly constructed makeshift antennas in preparation for Gonzalo’s arrival.

“Craig [Nikolai], VP9NL, was able to give us reports in the evening, as he only had a 40 meter dipole with one leg barely off the ground,” Graves recounted. “John, VP9NI, gave us many reports on 20 meters until losing commercial power. With only a 20 meter NVIS antenna about 5 feet off the ground and using the battery from a computer UPS, John was able to continue feeding us reports hourly on 20 and 40 meters while running about 12 W.” Other stations checking into the HWN included Glen Cuoco, VP9ID, and Ed Kelly, VP9GE. “Giving stations in the affected area advance notice of activation plans and gathering data as to what type of antenna and power output to expect really paid off,” Graves added.

Graves said that when the HWN was gathering post-storm reports, passing any emergency traffic, and relaying essential information to authorities, the Net learned that Rescue Coordination Centre Bermuda was without power — as was most of the island — and all requests for help were being diverted to the US Coast Guard. Nearly all of Bermuda’s residents lost power, dozens of roads were blocked by downed trees and limbs, and some damage to structures also was reported.

At WX4NHC, Assistant WX4NHC Coordinator, Julio Ripoll, WD4R, who was on duty late Friday, passed along his team's gratitude to the Amateur Radio community for its support in providing surface reports from Bermuda. Hurricane Specialist Stacey Stewart used several Amateur Radio reports in NHC advisories, statements, and discussions, Ripoll said.

Rob Macedo, KD1CY, Director of Operations for the VoIP Hurricane Net, which also activated for Gonzalo, said that while its key Amateur Radio contact was not on Bermuda, it was able to gather many reports from storm bloggers on the Caribbean Hurricane Network, social media outlets, and Weather Underground personal weather stations.

“We had constant contact with Marion Dyer in Pembroke, Hamilton, Bermuda, through the WhatsApp software via cell phone, and Cell One Bermuda service did remain up throughout the hurricane,” Macedo said. “She had sufficient back-up power from her phone and provided updates from around the island over the course of Gonzalo's passage, including as the eye passed over the island. Her key reports during the storm confirmed wind and flood damage to the Bermuda hospital and damage to roofing equipment on the Cedarbridge Academy, which serves as the island's shelter." Macedo said the VoIP Hurricane Net also received post-hurricane reports and photos from Dyer from around Bermuda.

Hurricane Ana

In Hawaii, the passage of Category 1 Hurricane Ana over the weekend was less dramatic, and the storm skipped the most-populated island of Oahu for the most part. ARRL Pacific Section Manager Bob Schneider, AH6J, reported that ham radio volunteers supported shelter communications as Ana passed by Hawaii, causing heavy rain, large waves, and some minor flooding.

“A request came from American Red Cross to deploy to the shelter at Ka’u High School in Pahala,” Schneider said. The school is in the southeastern edge of the Big Island. “Sean Fendt, KH6SF, and I drove 45 miles and set up HF and VHF communications (Sean Fendt’s wife Kimberly, WH6KIM, is the East Hawaii DEC).

“The shelter manager was very happy to see us, because in the last [weather] event they lost power and communications and had a full house. This time it was almost a non-event with the hurricane staying offshore to the south and west. There was quite a bit of rain and one road closure due to flooding. One couple that stayed in the shelter last night had been through several typhoons in Japan and didn’t want to take any chances, even though later forecasts showed tracks well offshore.”

Schneider said those later forecast tracks did not reveal the large amount of rain the storm brought along. He said the shelter was set up in the school’s music room, because, Schneider explained, “it is windowless and has thick walls to cut down on the noise from the band. It was the perfect room for a shelter.”

The ARES volunteers primarily used HF on 40 meters, although they also made use of a VHF repeater in Naalehu that was linked to the Big Island Wide Area Repeater Network (BIWARN). The team also made some use of cell telephones.

“We sent a couple of voice messages to SKYWARN headquarters located at NWS in Honolulu,” Schneider recounted. “Others weather spotters were using mostly Fldigi for messages to NWS. This is the reason SKYWARN used USB on 40 meters. We were happy that there was no serious problems and power stayed up.”

Schneider said that when the team stood down and volunteers were ready to head home, a check with Hawaii Police informed them that the road back was closed due to flooding. “After a couple hours of light steady rain, we decided to verify and discovered the road was not closed north of us, but was closed south of us. We sent a correction message. This was really the only incident at our location,” Schneider reported. — Thanks to the Hurricane Watch Net, the VoIP Hurricane Net, and ARRL Pacific SM Bob Schneider, AH6J



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