As violent storms swept through Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and North Carolina, served agencies called upon Amateur Radio operators to help provide communications support and real-time weather observations. The storms and flooding were the latest in the severe weather that has pummeled much of the mid-South this month. Just a week ago, storms tore a wide path from Oklahoma all the way to North Carolina.
In Pell City, Alabama — about 35 miles east of Birmingham — a storm ripped through the town early in the morning on Wednesday, April 27. The Pell City Emergency Operations Center lost all of its antennas in the winds that topped 100 miles per hour. According to ARRL Alabama Public Information Coordinator Ed Tyler, N4EDT, Amateur Radio operators were on hand all day at the EOC, providing communications support. As of Wednesday, the storms in Alabama had claimed at least 58 lives.
Taylor told the ARRL that in St Clair County, radio amateurs are providing communications support at 12 shelters: “Almost 550 people have come to the shelters, and Amateur Radio operators began assisting at the shelters even before the largest of the storm systems hit the area. St Clair County ARES® provided communication between City Hall and local fire stations, as well as to the American Red Cross, Baptist Disaster Relief Service and local churches.”
ARES® group are also assisting in restoring emergency communications in Tuscaloosa — home of the University of Alabama — following the damage inflicted by a tornado in that town. “Virtually all emergency communications were wiped out by the storm,” Taylor said. “We are using simplex to coordinate the efforts to restore communications.” Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox, after surveying his city, said that “we have neighborhoods that have been basically removed from the map.”
According to ARRL Alabama Section Manager Dave Drummond, W4MD, “things are bad here in Tuscaloosa. I was at the repeater site working on the CAT WX radio when the tornado warning was issued. I had just come from a site west of Tuscaloosa that had a tornado this morning. An 800 foot tower for a local FM station was blown away completely. We hiked into the site — it looked like a war zone — and the only thing left was the running generator. It took the whole tower and dumped it into the woods.”
As Drummond made his way back into town, his path took him within mere feet of the mile-wide path that the tornado made. “It was total devastation, a war zone,” he told the ARRL. “We lost all the three repeaters in town at one time. The Emergency Management Agency offices were blown away, and I was on location instantly. There are many, many, walking wounded. I saw a family of four adults and one child trapped under a house; they left in body bags. There are many situations like this, it’s just unbelievable. From that point on, we have had no communications from the EMA. We had to work simplex as a result, but we managed to communicate quite well.”
Drummond said that the Tuscaloosa Police Department was hit by the tornado, leaving them without communications: “We dispatched personnel to their location, so our reports could get to them. Many of my first reports were the only communication from the affected area that described the magnitude and devastation, as there were no communications otherwise left. I am still in shock.
Drummond told the ARRL that he, with some assistance from three other amateurs — finally got our 146.820 repeater site back on the air, “so we do at least have some repeater coverage. It’s amazing that it is still there. The generator back-up did not start, so we are currently running on an extension cord from the Comcast generators! The question, how do you plan for this when:
You lose your EMA, your weather net and your EOC — all at the same time?
You lose the three repeaters that you depend on in an emergency — all at one time?
You lose you command structure and your coordination?
“I can say this — the hams of Tuscaloosa County stepped up to the challenge and did it well. Also the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office dumped all of their resources into this and they delivered. My hat is off to these folks!”
In Jasper County, Mississippi — just north of Hattiesburg – Amateur Radio operators provided communications support when the infrastructure was damaged to storm activity. According to ARRL Jasper County Emergency Coordinator, ARES® members assisted in providing communications support to the Jasper County Emergency Management Agency, the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office and the Rose Hill Volunteer Fire Department in the search and rescue of tornado victims and for traffic control when the stoplights stpped working.
In Arkansas, ARRL Section Manager Dale Temple, W5RXU, told the ARRL that on Monday and Tuesday of this week, SKYWARN personnel were active from the National Weather Service office in North Little Rock. A tornado tore through Vilonia — located about 40 miles north of Little Rock — that killed four people. “There has been no need for Amateur Radio emergency communications because there was not a communication emergency,” Temple explained. “As of Tuesday evening, Arkansas SKYWARN is activated by the NWS and another round of dangerous supercells is moving from southeast to northeast across Arkansas, a little further south than last night. SKYWARN net controls and participants have put in many, many, hours of service with these storms.”
According to ARRL Delta Division Vice Director David Norris, K5UZ, weather nets were extremely active in Arkansas on Monday night; Norris lives in Batesville, in the northwest portion of the state. “Numerous tornado warnings and sightings kept ARES®/RACES and SKYWARN groups busy, making for a long night for some,” he told the ARRL. “Of particular note was the Faulkner County group with Vilonia being hit by an EF-3 twister, which left a trail of destruction through parts of Faulkner and White Counties, a half-mile wide. Members of Pope, Independence, Conway, Stone, White and Sebastian County ARES®/RACES groups, as well as members from local clubs, were busy spotting and reporting activity to the National Weather Service and their county Emergency Operations Centers. Randy Wright, AE5RW, monitored these nets and provided timely reports to a Little Rock TV station about traffic being passed on the amateur nets. All in all these efforts gave local officials and the general public a good impression of the capabilities of Amateur Radio.”
Though the damage was most profound in Vilonia, Monday’s tornadoes were not confined to that small town. During a period of four or five hours beginning Monday afternoon and ending just after nightfall, the area around Little Rock was hit by what weather officials believe were several large tornadoes.
ARRL North Carolina Section Manager Bill Morine, N2COP, said that the storms that blew through the weekend of April 16-17 claimed the lives of 23 people, the most lives lost in the state due to a natural disaster since 1984. “Because devastation was highly localized due to the narrow swath of many of the tornadoes, there were few communications outages,” he explained. “Nevertheless, SKYWARN was active and ARES® operators were on standby for much of the weekend.”
ARRL North Carolina Section Emergency Coordinator Tom Brown, N4TAB, told the ARRL that the Triad SKYWARN — comprised of hams from Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point — activated under the National Weather Service office in Raleigh, “reporting events as the storm line developed, intensified and moved east. As it cleared their jurisdiction, ARES® Triad operators provided reports into Central Carolina SKYWARN about conditions on the back side of the storm line.”
The hams in the Central Carolina SKYWARN were busy for many hours during the storms. According to Brown, the group used a rotating staff of at least two full-time operators who were on the air taking reports for the NWS, picking up the nets as reports were passed to the NWS. “When the NWS office was evacuated to safe quarters, the SKYWARN operators moved with the NWS staff and continued their activities without interruption,” Brown recounted. Wilson County ARES® was also activated for about five hours, where they were busy handling damage reports.
Flood warnings on Monday prompted evacuations of hundreds of people in Indiana, Kentucky and Missouri, following days of rain that led to rivers cresting over the flood stage. In Poplar Bluff, Missouri — where levees holding back the Black River were breeched on Tuesday — officials haven’t called upon Amateur Radio operators for assistance, but according to ARRL Missouri Section Emergency Coordinator Kenneth Baremore, W0KRB, hams in the area are standing by.