Amateur radio operators again played a critical communications role after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on Louisiana and Mississippi. Over the course of three weeks, approximately 1000 individual amateur radio operators descended on the hurricane-ravaged areas to provide communications for first responders and disaster relief agencies, while at least another 1000 ham radio operators scattered nationwide passed on vital reports using high-frequency bands.

In the days following Katrina, the Coast Guard, American Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency all put out calls for volunteer hams to provide communications because cell sites were inoperable, and public-safety communication facilities were overwhelmed because of the loss of repeater towers. In one instance, hams were instrumental in the rescue of 15 people clinging for life to a New Orleans rooftop. In Alabama, amateur SKYWARN weather nets kept the National Weather Service apprised of conditions throughout the state. In hard-hit sections of Mississippi, hams running off generators and with makeshift antennas were the only means of communication.

“All of these other networked communications go through repeaters and other infrastructure choke points,” said Allen Pitts, spokesman with ARRL, formerly known as the American Radio Relay League. “Each individual ham radio operator is a complete facility to itself. They are coordinated and can set up in 20 minutes with an array of communications in multiple bands and frequencies.”

On the fly, the ARRL set up a master database Web site where ham operators could volunteer their abilities. In a typical disaster, hams are usually prepared regionally, but the magnitude of Katrina's damage meant ARRL had to mobilize volunteers on a national level.

Plans are now being developed to expand operations for large events such as Katrina. “Normally our section emergency coordinators are the people in charge, and we didn't want to take that away from them, but they needed something bigger,” Pitts said. “We have to scale up the plans.”

For the first time, the federal government is helping hams assist others. The Corporation for National and Community Service is providing a $100,000 grant supplement to ARRL to support its emergency communication operators in states affected by Katrina. The grant will help fund a new program to support ham radio volunteers deployed to disaster-stricken areas.