The Red Cross reached out to the ARRL in an unprecedented request and asked for 50 amateur operators who could deploy to Puerto Rico. An operator from the Hawaii deployed in support of that mission, Wilbert “Bill” Kollenbaum, KH7XS / K4XS of Laupahoehoe, HI.
Bill was first licensed in 1962 and upgraded a few months later to general. He moved to Florida in 1974. Bill and his wife Holly, who is also an amateur radio operator – WH7YL, moved to the Big Island of Hawaii in 2006 and then back to the mainland in 2010. They missed the islands so in 2015 they moved back to Hawaii and split their time between Hawaii and Florida to be close to their three kids and two grandkids. Bill currently holds an extra class license from the FCC and is a well-known contester in the amateur radio community. Bill taught middle school math for 30 years before retiring.
When the ARRL sent out the request for immediate volunteers to assist the Red Cross Bill jumped at the request and flew from Tampa Florida to Atlanta on the 27th. From Atlanta they boarded a Jet Blue donated charter jet with 20 other amateurs and about 200 other Red Cross volunteers and landed in San Juan Puerto Rico.
I asked Bill why he would volunteer to deploy in this type of environment when he knew the living conditions and operating conditions would be so austere?
This is what Bill said: “Most obvious reason is I wanted to help the people of PR (Puerto Rico). I had been to KP4 (KP4 is the Prefix issued to ham radio operators in Puerto Rico), several times and had travelled all other the island in my visits, including the two island of Culebra and Vieques, so PR had a special place in my heart. Also I wanted to show the people of KP4 and the world that ham radio is still alive and well and can do the job when all else fails. I wanted to give something back to the hobby that has been so enjoyable for me.”
The Red Cross allocated each volunteer $200 to obtain the necessary equipment that they might need. In addition to their personal stuff like clothes, personal care items, they needed to purchase items that included mosquito netting, insect repellent, waterproof boots, water filtration, flashlights, headlamps, batteries, ran suits and silverware. They also needed a sleep sack, water bottle, sunscreen, baby wipes and hand sanitizer. The volunteers were told not to bring any radio gear and that it would be provided by the ARRL. The ARRL provided all the gear in a pelican cased and it included, laptops, Icom HF Radio, Icom 2 meters handy talkies, a 40 meter dipole antenna and MFJ power supply and antenna turner along with 100 foot of RG58 cable, Dacron Rope, and miscellaneous tools. A majority of that gear was provided by generous denotations to Ham Aid. Ham aid was created by the ARRL in 2005 in response to the need for equipment and resources to support the Amateur Radio response to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. Ham Aid equipment is available on loan to Amateur Radio organizations during disaster response when communications equipment is unavailable.
When Bill arrived he spent the first two nights sleeping on a pew in a church with about 150 to 200 other volunteers, male and females, all in one room with no power in San Juan while they got the headquarters station established at the Telemundo Building. They had two showers and cold water with the temperature hovering around 86 degrees at night. They had lots of beans and rice and were able to get breakfast while at the Telemundo building while in San Juan.
Bill then teamed up with Harold Roll from Georgia, call sign KM4FUD, to set up a station on Culebra, an island to the northeast of PR.
Bill and Harold left San Juan on Saturday morning and were dropped off with around 200 pounds of stuff to loan on a ferry at Fojardo. After a 2 hour ferry ride they arrived in the small ferry port of Culebra. They had no idea where to go or who to contact and were standing in a middle of a rainstorm that had dropped 5 inches of rain in one day. A local lady felt sorry for them and they put all their equipment in the back of her Toyota pickup truck and drove around until they found a place to set up and for the next 5 days they ate, slept and operated from the principal’s office in a small school on the island. They were on their own for food while in Culebra but the school had a cook they provided food to them, more rice and beans, but it was food. Sleeping arrangement were better here, they had a cot and in their own room in the offices at the school.
Upon their return to San Juan they lived in a university dorm. Bill was deployed as a driver one day to take various operators to new places to set up satiation all around the island.
Bill’s main job was to provide communications for residents and the utility companies and he also relayed messages to the National Guard and FEMA. Some operators were embedded in the Red Cross teams to provide communications to volunteers and went to various villages to get “Safe and Well” information on residents.
Bill set up the antennas on top of the tower on the roof of the Telemundo Building in San Juan and since antennas is his specialty he was able to get the SWR to less than 1.4:1.
Bill said a big lesson learned for him is that being Bi-lingual should be a priority for deployment. At a minimum, at lease half of those deployed should be bi-lingual. They only had 2 that could speak the local language. They had a hug issue at the command station since one of the two had to be station there at all times. In the field it was a big problem as far as establishing working relationships and handling request for materials and traffic. They had established frequencies for the Spanish operators in PR on 7.088 and they coordinated with them on 7.085 with the bi-lingual operators. The Spanish operators provided information on the infrastructure and worked as interpreters. One station, KP4RF, Oscar Restro worked as a liaison with the local government, Red Cross and the ARRL.
Bill stated that his experience as a contester was a great help to him. The ability to copy in adverse conditions and poor antennas is very important as a contester and it was in PR as well. The ability to get your message across to another station in difficult conations requires the same techniques of that of a contesters, use short sentences, good phonetics and contesters can go the distance, often sitting at the rig for 12 hours or more in not an issue.
Puerto Rico is similar to Hawaii in some ways. There aer big cities but much of the island is remote. The island of Culebra was extremely small, 1600 people, so the place felt like Bills hometown in Hawaii. Living in Hawaii and experiencing off grid life was very helpful Bill said. The topography and weather was the same, lots of mountains, rain, and landslides. The people of Puerto Rico were friendly and very applicative along with being resilient and extremely helpful.
Bill returned to the mainland on October the 10th. He reported getting off the island was not so easy. There were very few flights available and in order to get back to Tampa he had to fly to New York and then catch a flight to Tampa. He had the last seat on that flight of PR and he booked it a week ahead.
The ARRL Pacific Section would like to express their gratitude to Bill and his wife for the assistance he gave to the residence of Puerto Rico and the contribution they have made to our great hobby.