Hurricane Maria radio communications relied heavily on legacy equipment and ham radio after the “modern infrastructure” just disappeared.
On September 20, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. Several weeks on, most of the island is without power, clean water or telecommunications. But radio – both broadcast and ham – found ways to keep working.
Most of Puerto Rico’s radio stations and all television stations went dark as the power grid collapsed during this Category 5 storm. While most of the power generating stations remain intact, the transmission and distribution systems were wiped out. Overall, 95% of cellular communications infrastructure went down, as did the Internet. It’s getting back up but remains spotty. Things are so bad that phone companies say they may need to run some of their cell towers on emergency generators for years.
Hurricane Maria radio communications fared better.
Many of the island’s 140 radio broadcasters had emergency power generators. But a lot of these failed in the hours or days after the crisis began. Stations literally had their roofs blow off, their offices explode and ground floors flood. One station suddenly went off air as the announcer communicated how vulnerable he was in the studio.
Broadcasters must do disaster planning for three types of infrastructure: studios, transmitters and antennas, and the studio transmitter links or STL. These days, both studios and transmitter sites are highly automated and rely on computer controlled equipment and relays. As the telecommunications failed, networks disappeared. It’s always a good idea for a radio station to have secondary (redundant) studio and transmitter sites, but most don’t.
Some stations remained on the air with their legacy analog equipment, if it had been maintained over time. This included old fashioned typewriters. One station in particular, WAPA 860 in San Juan did just that. It provided service to 90% of the island, and did so pretty much alone for five days. Government officials and citizens drove or walked to WAPA with messages for broadcast. This station became the health and safety information hub for the island.
Hurricane Maria Radio Communications – Hams Come Through
As always, ham radio helped provide disaster communications. Hams stayed on the air during the critical early days. They were especially important in providing communications in the more remote areas on the west side of the island. Hams generally support medium to low priority health and welfare communications in these situations, taking a lot of the load of first responders.
In addition to local hams – Puerto Rico has about 4,000 – a team of fifty amateurs traveled from the U.S. to support the Red Cross.
Ham radio operates with minimal infrastructure, low power and makeshift antennas. It can easily re-position to remote areas, hospitals and command centers. Hams supported police, fire and power agencies, in some cases lending them equipment. Ham radio provides good communications across Puerto Rico and to mainland locations such as Florida and Venezuela. Emergency traffic nets operate on 80 and 40 meters, as well as VHF.