- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 4, 2005

ROANOKE — Gary Hendrick sat on a stool in his garage in Craig County and fiddled with the knobs and buttons of his ham radio. He was frustrated because the signals were weakening in the late afternoon.

Then, an urgent voice sliced through the static, clear as a bell.

“I have a diabetic, 80 years old, out of food and water for the last 24 hours,” the voice said.

An elderly woman from Bush, La., was stranded in her home after Hurricane Katrina and desperate for food and insulin. Somebody sent out the message over the air.

Other voices picked up the call and it was relayed across the United States until, with luck, it would reach a local rescue team.

With cell phones, land lines and the Internet knocked out by the storm, amateur radio operators had become the only link to the outside for some people stranded by high water.

It was like sweet revenge for Mr. Hendrick and others who communicate by ham radios, which he calls a “lost art,” forgotten by younger generations for newer technologies.

As the water started rising in Louisiana and Mississippi last week, Mr. Hendrick and other ham radio operators started a days-long vigil relaying messages. On Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Hendrick tried to send messages, but the radio signals were so poor that no one could hear him.

“Kilowatt Bravo 4 India Papa Radio. Can I get a relay into net control?” he repeated into his microphone to no avail.

“It’s frustrating,” Mr. Hendrick said. “The traffic on here is so heavy, and there are so many calls coming from all over the country.”

Whenever disaster strikes, ham radio operators organize into networks with a control operator directing radio traffic, said David Dabay, technical director for the Virginia chapter of the American Radio Relay League.

They get in touch with radio operators from the affected areas and relay messages to the outside world. Sometimes public safety agencies use radio frequencies usually reserved for amateurs when their own frequencies become overloaded.

Ordinarily, radio enthusiasts — who tend to be older to middle-aged men — chat about their equipment, the weather or whatever is on their minds, Mr. Hendrick said.

But they also are trained to respond quickly should they find themselves in an emergency.

They know how to hook up their radios when the power fails, and they keep emergency kits handy and often have four-wheel-drive vehicles to get patients to hospitals. Every year, usually in June, they gather to train in a simulated emergency, an event known as Field Day.

After an exasperating afternoon Wednesday, Mr. Hendrick finally was able to get on the air and heard of a family in Charlotte, N.C., trying to get news of their daughter, a student at Tulane University in New Orleans who hasn’t been heard from in days. He repeated the information into his microphone, addressing it to anybody who could hear him.

“We may get an answer,” he said. “We may not.”

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