Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands both suffered substantial damage from Hurricane Maria, although Puerto Rico took the bigger hit, and it is there that Amateur Radio has begun to fill a huge telecommunications gap. According to the FCC, service is out for 96% of the cellular telephone sites in Puerto Rico — and it’s out completely for sites in 78 Puerto Rico counties. In the US Virgin Islands, the overall percentage is 66%.
“The situation in Puerto Rico is very devastating across all the island,” Puerto Rico SM Oscar Resto, KP4RF, said over the weekend. “Communications via land phone or mobiles are almost null.” Repeaters are down, he said, and hams have been using the 2-meter simplex frequency of 146.52 MHz, although he hoped to have a few local ham radio repeaters “working partially with damaged antennas.” With police repeaters also down, law enforcement has been using 2 meters as well.
American Red Cross Headquarters suffered the loss of its emergency generator due to flooding. A temporary ARC headquarters has Internet and cell service, he said.
Over the weekend, the American Red Cross (ARC) asked the ARRL for assistance in recruiting 50 radio amateurs who can help record, enter, and submit disaster-survivor information into the ARC Safe and Well system. That request was fulfilled today. In the nearly 75-year relationship between ARRL and ARC, this is the first time such a request for assistance on this scale has been made.
Resto said radio amateurs have also been assisting Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority (Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica) using 146.52 MHz to dispatch line crews and coordinate fuel deliveries for the authority’s offices at the Monacillo Control Center and at several power plants. “The power system is fully shut down for all the island,” he said. Drinking water and proper sanitation facilities are also in very short supply. Resto said Puerto Rico needs “everything…solar panels, repeaters, and most important, transmission lines and antennas. Some base or mobile VHF/UHF radios, a 1 to 2 kW power generator.” Fuel for generators as well as vehicles is running low on Puerto Rico, however.
Radio amateurs in Puerto Rico have been operating a brisk and busy ad hoc health-and-welfare traffic nets on 7.175 and 14.270 MHz, as has the Salvation Army Team Emergency Network (SATERN) on 14.265 MHz. Nets are handling only outgoing traffic. Resto said checking on individuals’ welfare typically requires attempting to visit them in person, since telecommunications are down nearly everywhere.
Gerry Hull, W1VE, reports that Herb Perez, KK4DCX, in San German, had been operating 6 to 8 hours a day, working dozens of operators, taking numbers and calling families. “I’ve done at least 200 messages with him,” said Hull, who has also been active on the SATERN net. Another station in Puerto Rico was operating from solar power.
“Calls to family are very emotional,” he told ARRL. “I am getting all kinds of calls day and night for people desperate to hear about family in Puerto Rico, but hams cannot provide inbound traffic.” He directs them to the Red Cross website to submit inquiries. “Lots of contesters are helping with their big stations,” he said.
US Virgin Islands Section Manager Fred Kleber, K9VV, said the USVI are in much better shape than Puerto Rico. “They really got slammed hard,” he said. Kleber said he still has antennas that were not destroyed by the storm and that he can hit Puerto Rico on 2 meters from his location. He also has announced plans to deploy some 20 mesh wireless network nodes in the US Virgin Islands.
“We have used every trick in our comms bag of tricks to make stuff work,” Kleber said.
Kleber said pictures in the news and social media don’t do justice to the wholesale devastation, which Caribbean radio amateurs also must deal with at their homes and in their communities. He told ARRL late last week that trees, power poles, transformers, and telephone lines are down all over, debris is blocking roadways, and it takes a long time to get anywhere. He and others have been staffing the emergency communications center 24/7.
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