Weather News

Ham radio operators play vital role in crises

Glenn Baxter, manager of the International Amateur Radio Network, answers the phone while manning his ham radio from a small building nest to his home in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, Sept. 20, 1989. With 2,000 members in 45 countries, Baxters network helps disaster victims obtain emergency aid and contact worried relatives. Similar ham radio operators helped victims of Hurricane Hugo in the Caribbean earlier this month. (AP Photo/Herb Swanson)
Glenn Baxter, manager of the International Amateur Radio Network, answers the phone while manning his ham radio from a small building nest to his home in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, Sept. 20, 1989. With 2,000 members in 45 countries, Baxters network helps disaster victims obtain emergency aid and contact worried relatives. Similar ham radio operators helped victims of Hurricane Hugo in the Caribbean earlier this month. (AP Photo/Herb Swanson) AP

More from the series


Hurricane Hugo coverage from The State: Sept. 17 - Sept. 24, 1989

Read more stories from The State’s original reporting of Hurricane Hugo in 1989. From Hugo’s collision with the Caribbean islands and Puerto Rico to its catastrophic landfall near Charleston, The State kept readers up-to-date with vital news about the event that turned into the worst storm South Carolina has ever seen.

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This story first appeared in The State on September 21, 1989.

The radio signal coming from the Caribbean was strong, but the voice was shaky.

”We’re fine,” the ham radio operator said from an island he didn’t identify, assuring friends in the United States that he and his family had survived Hurricane Hugo. “The wind blew so hard it blew the paint off the side of the house. But everyone’s fine.”

He was one of the lucky ones — many of the storm’s victims didn’t have houses left to repaint.

But he and other ham radio operators in the hard-hit Caribbean have had little opportunity to reflect on their own losses in the last few days. They’ve been busy serving as the only link between the battered islands and a worried mainland.

Another operator relayed a request from the hard-hit British island of Montserrat. A ham there said he was too busy handling emergency information to deal with “health and welfare” requests from the continent about friends and relatives in stricken areas.

Walter Ockoskis of Columbia is one of many ham radio operators who have helped out in the last few days. On Monday, he was able to help a woman who was isolated on St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, get in touch with her father in Massachusetts.

Ockoskis patched his radio through the telephone, and the woman was able to talk to her father directly.

The role of radio operators in South Carolina would become even more important if Hugo hits the state’s coast, operators say.

”If it hit the coast head on like it hit Puerto Rico, the only communication they’d have would be emergency stuff the state might have, and ham radio,” Ockoskis said.

Some operators from the Midlands would take their equipment to the stricken coast. John Seibels of Columbia, a radio operator for 35 years, has been on the Isle of Palms and Pawleys Island when he was the only one able to get information out after hurricanes struck there.

Hams work with the American Red Cross, the National Weather Service and local emergency preparedness organizations to ferry information in the event of a disaster.

They also are indispensable to the weather service when phones are knocked out, meteorologist Milton Brown said.

”Wind damage, flooding, anything like that, we may not be able to tell from radar,” he said. “They can confirm it, and then we can warn others downstream.”

When several tornadoes hit the state in March 1984, power and phone lines were being knocked out around the Midlands. But the Columbia weather service’s radar wasn’t picking the tornadoes up, and it couldn’t issue a warning.

Hams in Chesterfield County saw the twisters and radioed the information in to the weather service, which was then able to warn the nearby town of Bennettsville in time to get the sirens going.

”It saved a lot of lives,” Brown said.

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