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As howling storm battered Alaska, ham operators provided vital link

Jill Burke
Martin Ruud's ham radio set up at his home in Nome. He draped sleeping bags over his windows at the height of the storm to protect his gear. Martin Ruud

The jet stream feeding the wintery sea-spun tempest that sideswiped Alaska’s western coast wasn’t the only worldwide conveyer belt in motion this week. As howling winds whipped up and crashing waves pounded beaches, the people who live in the remote, isolated villages along the storm’s path stayed connected via a web of global radio frequencies.

When other communications failed, ham radio operators came to the rescue. Throughout the storm, they were the eyes for scientists in Fairbanks and Anchorage who otherwise would have been blind to weather conditions they could predict but not see.

 “They were providing critical observations. We don’t have a lot of meteorological observations in the west. We don’t have the instruments out there,” Carven Scott, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Anchorage, said  Thursday as messages sent via the amateur radio network zapped into his inbox.

 The messages were deceptively simple: how fast the wind was blowing and from what direction; sea level; wave height; whether it was snowing or raining; and the temperature. These seemingly small details from various villages made a big difference for the weather service -- enough so, Scott said, that a lead forecaster told him, “Whatever you do, don’t cut it off because this stuff is really helping us.”

 Through the ham radio network, Scott and his colleagues learned that river ice in Koyuk was backing up and spilling onto the banks, roofs had blown off in Nome, water was surging in Nome, and rain and snow were falling in Shaktoolik and Savoonga.

 Scott describes weather prediction as a 10,000 piece puzzle with 9,000 pieces missing. Remote sensing tools, radar and satellites all help, but conceptual models are only as good as the limited information forecasters have. First-hand reports from people on the ground feed the model with real information in real-time, allowing forecasters to adjust and refine their analysis. If snow was predicted but it’s actually raining, meteorologists tweak their formulas.

 “Those seemingly unimportant pieces of information help us characterize where the front is at,” he said. “Without that information, it would impact our ability to execute our mission, which is the protection of life and property and enhancement of national commerce.”

 Setting up the system

When it became clear the brewing Bering Sea storm was going to be a doozy, the National Weather Service got word out to Alaska’s amateur radio network that it wanted help, the idea of a forecaster and ham operator out of Kodiak. That man, Richard Courtney, and Scott had for some time thought that amateur radio would be a good communications supplement during such an event. With the hurricane-force Bering Sea storm approaching Alaska, they decided to give it a shot.

“Whenever the National Weather Service has questions about what is going on or what is pending in a far-off place, they will call on the amateur (radio) community to try and provide current update information,” said Jerry Curry, a board member and ham operator with the Arctic Amateur Radio Club in Fairbanks. “They don’t have the ability to see what’s going on out there. It enables them to produce better and more accurate forecasts.”

A group of Alaskan amateur radio operators able to help during disasters answered the call.  Its Alaska’s Amateur Radio Emergency Service, or ARES, tapped Nome-based ham operator Martin Ruud.

Working from Tuesday night, as the storm descended, until Thursday morning, Ruud -- call sign WL7MR -- manned his home-based station. He draped sleeping bags over his windows to protect himself and his equipment in case a wind gust shattered the glass. Outside, a 160-meter loop of antenna stood ready atop four telephone poles the city of Nome gave to him for free, knowing he could put people in contact when other methods failed.

Ham operators are an interesting group. Though unpaid, they're deeply committed to public service. Although though they willingly take to the airwaves, some prefer to heard, not seen, a characteristic Ruud likens to “bull elk in hunting season.” That may explain Ruud's preference to conduct an interview by email instead of over the phone.

While Ruud was standing by in Nome, operators in Kenai, Ketchikan, Fairbanks and Whitehorse were also ready to take voice messages and get them to where they needed to go.

Isolated Alaska villages answer the call

From Nome, Ruud fielded messages from islands and other coastal communities. In Gambell, a village at the northern tip of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, Job Koonooka was his contact. In Elim, east of Nome on the shore of Norton Sound, it was John Jemeouk. In Shishmaref, it was Bobby Iyatunguk. He had others in St. Michael, Little Diomede, Brevig Mission and Koyuk.

Many of these smaller communities relied on Internet or phone connections to get their status updates to Ruud, who then fed them into an email format that he beamed out via radio, sometimes with pictures attached, to larger processing centers. From these larger systems, the messages “jumped track” from the radio network to the Internet and continued their journey to the email inboxes of other ham operators, including those working with the National Weather Service in Alaska.

At one point, bad weather dislodged Koonooka’s Internet antenna, forcing him to move the antenna indoors near a window. Through a connection to GCI, he would access his Yahoo email account and type up reports that included weather conditions and the status of any evacuations or damage.  The 65-year old carpenter met Ruud at the village school years ago when Ruud taught there.  At the latter's request, Koonooka agreed to help out during the storm.

Like Gambell, no one in the village of Elim has amateur high frequency (AHF) radio. This is because the main communication towers are in the lowest parts of town where they're prone to flooding and have limited signal range. The VHF radios used in searches also have limitations. For this reason, Elim and surrounding communities could benefit if the state’s emergency coordinators installed an amateur radio station there.

Stations are entirely self-sufficient. They don’t need AC power nor an Internet or satellite connection. Generators and car batteries can power the equipment, making them independent of any community’s power or communication grid. And with receiving stations spread throughout the world, it’s relatively easy to find a way to get the message through.

During last week’s storm, some of the messages Ruud sent were first picked up in Petaluma, Calif. -- rather than  monitoring stations in Fairbanks or Anchorage -- before being sent to their intended recipients in Alaska. This network allowed the village of Shishmaref to get word out near 11 one night that none of its residents had been injured, phones still worked, there was no known damage, the gym was open, businesses were closed and that help wasn't needed. Then came this detail about the surging waters: CALM WINDS WATER STILL RISING, LOTS OF WATER IN LAGOON SLOWLY GETTING TO HOMES.

Earlier in the storm cycle, Shishmaref reported to Ruud that its emergency services center was up and running, its store had closed, power was on, phones were working, wind was coming in from the south at 35-40 miles per hour, and the beach was holding up during a rising tide.

Through the amateur radio network, Ruud was able to distribute a picture sent from the village of Koyuk showing ice beginning to build, as well as  this message: "Blizzard conditions set in 10pm winds 15 from SE gusts up to 25. Tide has not come in yet. Tide receded about 3.5 feet from the highest tide. no property damages as of last update or personal injury. Still haven’t heard if the school or businesses will close tomorrow. Business’s open normal hours this evening. So far so good."

For nearly 48 hours, Ruud kept at it, funneling messages to and fro. By early Thursday morning, he and the rest of the hams stood down.

A long, modest history

Amateur radio has a long history in Alaska. During the 1964 earthquake, when state and military communication grids were interrupted, the amateur operators stepped in to help Alaskans get messages to family and loved ones Outside.

During the recent storm, the ARES network showed it’s a good complement to the state's emergency system. More than a back up, it demonstrated it can fill information gaps -- though it will never replace the communication used by  those in command. Ham operators always defer to official responders during any crisis.

Still, amateur radio’s place in the modern world of disaster response is gaining notice. It emerged during the 9-11 terrorist attacks as well as Hurricane Katrina. Here in Alaska, the state, local communities and the military have taken note and begun to include amateur radio into the way they respond to disasters, said Jim Larsen, another member of ARES and the Alaska chapter of the American Radio Relay League.

“We actually hope we never get used. But we want to help our communities -- so if they need us, we want to be as prepared as we can,” Larsen said. “We are a force multiplier for the management.”

Regardless of whether they officially get called in, ham operators will be there. They know that when everything else fails, the nearly century-old technology of using radio frequencies to communicate will come through.

“Amateur radio is kind of Plan B for anything else that doesn’t work,” said Curry. “It is basically a world or global messaging system. A ham radio operator with the right equipment can send a message from just about anywhere in the world.”

Had Alaska’s communication network disintegrated during the storm,  Ruud and other hams would have stepped in. “You can be sure Marty would have been a busy person,” Curry said. As it is, “he went a couple of days without sleep. He deserves a pat on the back.”

But hams don’t seem to want pats on the back. Mostly, they seem to only want to help.  “Ham operators do this all the time,” Ruud said. “The volunteers in the village(s) are the real heroes who are willing to help out their communities.”

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com'