21 August 2020

What If The 'S' Really Does 'HTF'?

21 Aug 2020 NOAA prediction - looks like things will be getting rough on the Gulf coast

Preppers get laughed at all the time for being 'nutty'. Right up to the minute prepping time ends and surviving time begins. The list of realistic potential disaster scenarios is enough to make any mature adult sit up and take notice. Maybe these prepper guys aren't so nutty after all:

  • Hurricanes & Tropical Storms (all of the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast and most of the East Coast all the way up to Maine)
  • Tornados (all of the midwest from Texas to the upper plains, and across the southeast)
  • Earthquakes (all of the west coast, from San Diego to Seattle, and all of Alaska)
  • Tsunamis (every Pacific Rim earthquake presents a serious Tsunami threat)
  • Wildfires (all of the West, and large portions of Florida and Georgia)
  • Flooding (all of the Mississippi basin and tributaries, from the upper Midwest to New Orleans)
  • Atlantic winter storms (East Coast, from the Carolinas to Maine)
  • Major snow events (upper Midwest, Great Lakes region, upper East Coast)
  • Polar Vortex (most of the US west of the Rockies and north of the Carolinas)

California burns. Again.

And just when you think you've got all the 2020 potentials covered, Mother Nature says "hold my beer" and delivers:
  • COVID-19
  • A multi-state Derecho (widespread high winds)

The August 2020 Derecho caused widespread damage across at least five states

Then we can layer on some manmade tomfoolery such as:
  • Rolling power outages in California
  • Widespread rioting in many major cities
  • Lagging disaster recovery efforts in places like Puerto Rico

Coming soon to a city (uncomfortably) near you?

Then there's the far less likely but still possible scenarios such as:
  • A New Madras fault shift
  • A Yellowstone cauldron-triggered earthquake or eruption
  • A Mount St. Helens-level volcanic eruption anywhere on the 'ring of fire' (California, Oregon, Washington State, Alaska)

Mount Redoubt, Alaska. This eruption took place in 2009 which, in geologic time,
was about two seconds ago

I'm not an alarmist, just a realist. All of these likely scenarios will have impacts at the state, regional, and national scale. For example, a major earthquake in California will have immediate regional and national impacts, and those impacts will linger for months, or years. But the ones most impacted will be the ones 'right here, right now'; the people living and working in the immediate disaster area. Look at the first list above and ask yourself, "do I live in any of those regions?" My guess is, you do.

Most of these scenarios can, and frequently do, trigger widespread civilian communications outages; no cell coverage, no landline, no internet, nothing. Even a localized tornado can cripple all civilian communications for days, depending on the intensity and extent of the tornado. In fact, there are confirmed reports of New Jersey residents being without power, landline and cell service for several days after Tropical Storm Isaias battered the state in early August 2020. If there's a state that can be described as having 'dense infrastructure', then New Jersey is it. Yet for many residents everything went dark. For days.

In Amateur Radio, among the ARES crowd, we often discuss emergency communications in the context of 'sheltering in-place'. To be honest, that's the most likely scenario. But every year there are tens of thousands of disaster victims who find themselves evacuating - whether it's to a local shelter or to a refugee center in another state. 

So, what if you need to evacuate on short notice and the agency ordering the evacuation can't guarantee you'll have access to communications services where you are going? Amateur Radio operators are in a unique position to solve their own problem. With the right equipment set you can go anywhere and establish world-wide communications, even with non-amateur radio operators (think Winlink here). But being able to do this requires planning, and the time to start planning is not when the police are banging on your door and telling you you've got one hour to evacuate.

In this situation, effective communications means:
  1. Holding the right Amateur Radio license level (hint - Technician ain't going to get it)
  2. Being proficient at the communications mode you intend to use (voice or digital)
  3. Having the right equipment set (another hint - this isn't the time for QRP)
  4. Having that equipment staged for quick and easy load-out
  5. Having a pre-established communications plan that is understood and can be supported by those 'in the net'
Let's be honest - during a forced evacuation you've got more important things to worry about than "did I bring enough coax?" The not-so-secret trick here is to plan, plan, plan. Make Amateur Radio a standard part of your evacutaion plan.

What should an evacuation communications package contain? I'm not going to get into the particulars; this isn't a radio fanboy post. I'll just cover the major components:
  • 100 watt HF rig (forget QRP rigs - in this situation you need every available watt of output power)
  • Power supply (give serious consideration to a battery/solar combo)
  • A frequency agile antenna that is easy to put up and easy to repair
  • Coax & connectors. Lots of coax (one of the big lessons learned from the Hurricane Maria response in Puerto Rico was that you can never have enough coax)
  • If running digital modes, a computer and all necessary interface cables
  • Transport cases that provide some measure of environmental protection

So you've selected your equipment package. Great, but when did you last set it all up and test? Have you actually put everything together and tested it on the air? Can you pass traffic using the setup? If the answer is no to any of these questions, then how do you know it works? Don't assume! 

Once you evacuate and set up your communicatoins equipment, now what? In a large scale disaster you can expect one or more health and welfare nets to be operating. These nets will pass a short 'safe and well' message to a relative or friend, and that may be all you need. However, if you want to have longer and more frequent conversations with folks inside or outside the impacted area you really have only two choices: a pre-coordinated voice or digital communications schedule set with other Amateur Radio operators, or the use of a radio-based email system like Winlink. Note the use of the term 'pre-coordinated'. You need to coordinate a communications schedule - frequencies, modes and times - with fellow radio Amateurs before the hurricane rolls ashore, or before the volcano erupts, or before the levees burst. A well thought out communications plan is every bit as important as all the gear you plan to bring along

Let's talk about digital modes for a minute. Digital mode software has gotten very good over the past decade or two. Programs like Fldig can be set up to log traffic incoming traffic, and newer applications like JS8CALL can be configured to act as automatic relay nodes and run unattended. Weak signal software like JS8CALL is very good at digging message traffic out of the band noise. This allows your unattended station to receive, store and forward message traffic that often doesn't even appear in the waterfall display. Just remember, other stations in your 'net' need to be running the same software, configured the same way, and operating on the same band/frequency at the same time. It may be time to think about adopting ALE for use in disaster evacuation situations.

There's signal in all that noise!

As you develop your communications plan, consider the very real possibility that you will transition from being just an evacuee to being a message handling center, or a relay station, handling health and welfare messages for others. Remember, not everyone can, or wants to, evacuate. With a reliable HF setup you could be ideally positioned to act as a a key node in any disaster communications framework. Hey, it'll give you something to do while you wait around for your Red Cross blankets and bottled water.

We'll expand on all of this later but for now, enjoy your hurricane season!

W8BYH out

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