The ARRL Pacific Section (Hawaii) had the pleasure of hosting The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s ARRL Regional Manager Oscar Resto (KP4RF) in August 2018. Mr. Resto, a professor of physics at the University of Puerto Rico, gave seventeen presentations about his experiences during Hurricane Maria to various groups on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island. We’re grateful to all who attended, participated, and helped make Mr. Resto’s trip a success.
Mr. Resto was able to offer critical and relevant information about the devastation caused by Category 5 Hurricane Maria, which struck the Puerto Rican islands on September 20, 2017, with attention to the similarities between our island communities and how such a storm could impact Hawaii.
With its pre-Maria population estimated at well over three million residents, the densely populated main island of Puerto Rico is the 3rd-largest island in the United States and covers about 3,400 square miles (roughly 111 x 40 miles). Puerto Rico is situated about 1,200 miles from the U.S. mainland – about a 2 hour flight from Florida. Puerto Rico recognizes over 143 islands in the North Atlantic Ocean & the Caribbean Sea, although only two other islands are listed as inhabited.
In contrast, the main Hawaiian island of Oahu has close to one million residents (roughly two-thirds of the state’s population), covers 597 square miles (roughly 44 x 30 miles) as the 20th-largest island in the U.S., and is located about 2,500 miles from the mainland U.S. – at least a 5-hour flight from California. According to the U.S. Census, the entire state of Hawaii’s population was about 1.4 million people in 2017. The state of Hawaii recognizes 137 islands and is generally known by its 8 main islands that span a 305 mile distance in the North Pacific Ocean.
According to Resto, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as a slow-moving (7 MPH) Category 5 storm with sustained winds as high as 165 MPH, cutting diagonally across the island and exiting as a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 110 MPH. Days of incredible rainfall followed. Maria was the 3rdlargest storm to hit a U.S. territory and it would ultimately claim nearly 3000 lives.
The monster storm immediately destroyed the island’s power grid, leaving 100% of the island without electricity. 98% of commercial communications were down, as were the internet, VoIP systems, 2-way radios, P25 and trunked systems. The NOAA Doppler Radar Station was destroyed, affecting airport approach radar & communications. Only one television station and one radio station were on the air in limited fashion due to a fuel shortage. Many local ham radio operators lost their antennas and stations during the storm and were without electricity, supplementing with generator power if they were fortunate enough to have functioning units and fuel to run them. It wasn’t long before satellite systems became unusable as over 2000 phones overwhelmed the limited available channels. People would clog the roadways searching for cell phone signals and could only use G2 or SMS text. This would go on for at least the first six weeks.
Hospitals were damaged and flooded, operating without communication, and had no way to call for supplies or assistance. More than 300 health care facilities were without a means of communication with the outside world, but for the few that had copper wire landline phone systems. Much of the staff didn’t or couldn’t report to work. It was no better for nursing homes, dialysis facilities and transportation systems. Patient records couldn’t be accessed without computers, medication prescriptions couldn’t be filled without records, transportation services couldn’t be coordinated without communication. The patients’ families had only one course of action – to band together and provide care to their loved ones and, when possible, see that they were moved to acute care facilities when needed.
With limited fuel & food storage on the island and the harbor ports closed, gasoline rationing and staggered grocery shopping quickly became a way of life that was too often disrupted by thieves. Robberies, carjackings and generator thefts quickly emerged as means to survive the devastation. Everyone, including the police, focused on repairing their own situations and were not necessarily reporting for work (some labeling it the “blue flu”). There weren’t enough workers or functioning trucks available to get started with repairs. Transformers, poles & lines were in short supply. Many roadways were blocked and bridges collapsed. Without police, fire & emergency services personnel available, and most importantly without communications, the local government could not restore order and declared martial law from 6PM to 6AM to help ensure public safety. Sadly, no one was safe from the crime and even the nursing homes had their generators stolen by thieves.
It was the ham radio operators who stepped-up to provide emergency communication from the Monacillo Control Station and 23 technical plazas throughout the island. More than 130 local radio amateurs became the only means of communication for many small villages and communities. By September 23rd, hams were the “eyes and ears” of the island via VHF. They were able to collaborate with the Red Cross and create an incident map that assessed damage, road conditions and other critical information about the island that would be shared with many other assistive agencies. Since there were only a few repeaters available for those first weeks, the hams persisted in ensuring repairs and reconfiguring to accommodate emergency power generators. One linked repeater, administered by KP4DH, was able to secure coverage from the east to west coast of Puerto Rico, allowing emergency portable stations to coordinate with the American Red Cross and FEMA.
The hams were able to service 11 hospitals and help with securing supplies, water, power, diesel fuel, oil, generators and equipment. The hams were vital in relaying patient information from one facility to another during facility patient transfers.
It was the excellent working relationship between the amateur radio operators and the local police, fire, EMS, The American Red Cross and local and U.S. government organizations that brought some sense of calm and organization to the extreme situation and circumstances. Communication and collaboration are essential to restoring order and safety during and after a disaster.
It is incumbent on us to incorporate the information provided by Mr. Resto into at least our own disaster mitigation and preparedness plans.
Written by KH6OWL & KH6YO