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North Carolina Hams Respond to Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd
by Gary Pearce KN4AQ
ARRL NC Section PIC

Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd landed a One-Two punch on North Carolina in late August and mid-September, often leaving ham radio as the only means of communications to beleaguered counties. Dennis became known as "the hurricane that wouldn't leave," as it dithered for days in the Atlantic, pounding the state's Outer Banks islands, before reversing course and finally making landfall, tracking across eastern North Carolina as a tropical storm. Two weeks later, Floyd crossed the Atlantic as a huge, ferocious storm that threatened tremendous devastation. Although Floyd weakened considerably before making landfall and veered east of the course that would have taken it through the state's capital in Raleigh, its heavy rains left behind record flooding across the eastern third of the state.

As Dennis approached during the last week of August, amateurs began activating stations at county EOCs, the state EOC in Raleigh, and at the Logistics Staging Area (LSA) in Kinston. The LSA was to be the hub of the states emergency response activity. W9EF, WA4MOK, WD4JPQ, and WD4MTT put together a station with multiple HF and VHF radios. They were able to communicate through regional repeaters, the Tarheel Net (North Carolina's ARES net, on 3923 kHz), and the Hurricane Watch Net on 14.325 MHz. Meanwhile, KF4RDP and KF4JKQ began lining up operators to man the state EOC in Raleigh for 24 hour per day duty.

Dennis skirted the North Carolina coastline beginning Monday, August 30th. SKYWARN nets were activated on the Wilmington 146.82 and Trenton 145.21 repeaters. Damage in the southern coastal counties around Wilmington was only moderate. But, as the hurricane paralleled the Outer Banks islands, its movement stalled. For three long days it barely moved, all the time lashing the Outer Banks with hurricane or tropical storm force winds.

An evacuation had been ordered, but as usual, hundreds of people remained behind to "ride out the storm" on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. Hatteras and Ocracoke are long, narrow strips of sand, as much as 30 miles off the mainland. The people who didn't evacuate became trapped for days as high winds and storm surges closed the only bridge and road through Hatteras, and kept ferries from running to Ocracoke. Power, water and telephone communications all failed. Amateur radio, and one solitary cell phone, became the only communications between the mainland and the people on the islands.

Dare County EC Harry Bridges K4UOR reports that several hundred messages were passed by amateurs around the Outer Banks and mainland areas for more than a dozen agencies. All this was done with only about 15 amateurs in this rural part of North Carolina. The hams on the islands used a linked repeater system, augmented by a series of crossband repeaters. The linked repeaters reached far enough inland to permit direct communications with the LSA in Kinston and the state EOC in Raleigh.

Lou Browning K4USB, assistant EC for Dare County, was one of the hams operating from Hatteras. He gives this report of some of the communications: "The day after the storm hit here, I got up and went to the EOC to check in (I am on the advisory board as a ham radio operator). Our first priority was to find out how bad the situation was and why we didn't have any water pressure. I drove a fire department M715 down to the water plant to see how deep the water was on the access road, and to check the power lines going to the plant and to the well field.

"Our 800 MHz EOC trunking system wasn't working (unfortunately the power company uses the same system). I was able to communicate to Randy Jordan W4HAT, who runs the power generating plant here on the island and Ocracoke. By being on the repeater with W4HAT, I was able to tell the local power company exactly what the condition of the lines and fuses to the water plant and pumping stations was in real time.

"The next task was to drive down to Hatteras village and check the power line south about 4 miles to where it turns into a submarine cable under Hatteras Inlet. This is the power feed line for Ocracoke. There is no paved road and about 3 to 4 feet of water on the sand road. When I got to the end where the submarine cable pops up, I couldn't talk with anyone except via 2 meters to Randy. Standing on the cab of the truck in the edge of Hatteras Inlet, I was giving power line conditions directly through Randy to the power company that feeds Ocracoke and to the Raleigh NC power office.

"My wife, Linda, is the disaster team coordinator for lower Hatteras Island and had many third party conversations with the Red Cross representatives in the Dare County EOC in Manteo via a 440 crossbander here on Hatteras and the Columbia 146.835 repeater."

A few helicopters were able to slip in and out of Hatteras during quieter moments of the storm. Hams helped coordinate the helicopter evacuation of a pregnant woman who was flown to the mainland and gave birth to a healthy baby.

Lou says the hams on Hatteras are "communications nuts." They carry radios for multiple emergency communications organizations, giving them more flexibility than the operators in any one organization. Still, he says that ham radio is their most reliable form of communications at any time. And since there are no broadcast stations on the Outer Banks, most of the public gets their emergency information by listening to the hams on scanners.

Elsewhere, KC4JKW reports that Onslow County got a brand-new EOC building just a few days before Dennis hit. They didn't have their Amateur radio antennas up yet, so a temporary VHF station was set up, while the HF link to the state EOC in Raleigh was maintained by a station operating at home.

The Kinston LSA was kept on the air by hams from the Brightleaf Amateur Radio Club in Greenville, and the Kinston Amateur Radio Society. The station at the state EOC in Raleigh was manned 24 hours per day with help from hams from many area clubs: the Raleigh Amateur Radio Society, the Cary Amateur Radio Club, the Johnston Amateur Radio Society, students from the NC State University StARS club and others. Most of the operators report light traffic. KO4TV says that during one shift in the state EOC, he helped dispel rumors of mass starvation on Ocracoke that the press had picked up.

Just as activity from hurricane Dennis was winding down, hurricane Floyd turned itself into a major storm out in the Atlantic. It flattened the Bahamas as a category 4 hurricane, then curved north and drew a bead on North Carolina. The news media predicted a devastating hurricane, aimed directly at the capital city of Raleigh, the same track hurricane Fran took in 1996. Shelters opened as far west as Winston-Salem, and hams headed once again to the Emergency Operating Centers.

Fortunately, Floyd weekend as it approached landfall, and its track turned farther east. Wind damage was again moderate to minimal in most places. But Floyd dropped an incredible amount of rain as it passed quickly through the state. Under sunny, blue skies the next day, emergency management officials realized they had a tremendous flooding problem on their hands.

They had a communications problem too, as one by one, County EOC's and public service agencies lost power and communications to flood waters. Once again, hams filled in to provide local communications and the link to the LSAs and the state EOC.

As this is being written, three days after Floyd crossed the state, hams are being helicoptered into Edgecombe County to provide relief for other hams who have been on duty in Tarboro, a town that was completely flooded. Once again, hams are providing the only communications links after flood waters knocked out the County communication system.

And the hurricane season is only about half over.

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