Posted: December 1, 2017 at 4:46 am

By Neel Madhavan, Ben Murray and Joel Norman

Residents of the island of Puerto Rico have been through hell, and then some.

The eastern part of the island had just been impacted by Hurricane Irma, and just days later, residents were now preparing for the full impact of the oncoming Hurricane Maria.

The members of the Amateur Radio Club at West Virginia University felt obligated to help those affected by the hurricanes. So, they began offering communication services using their radio technology to people around Morgantown who were unable to get in touch with family members and loved ones in Puerto Rico due to power outages and lack of cell service.

Jarilyn Hernandez’s family had stocked up on enough food and supplies to last them for five days in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

No one expected the kind of devastation that ensued.

On the morning of Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria made direct landfall on Puerto Rico, bringing with it 150 mph winds and deluging the island with torrential rains.

Hernandez, a computer science graduate student at West Virginia University, lost contact with her family as most people on the island lost power, and cell phone service and communications were knocked out due to the high winds.

“I called my sister who lives in Florida and she told me she was having the same problem,” Hernandez said. “Then I accessed the news channels from the island through Facebook and there weren’t any recent publications. It was then that I knew something was wrong and I felt despair and an emptiness in my heart that is hard to describe in words.”

A few days passed and Hernandez ran into one of her professors, Dr. Roy Nutter, an electrical engineering professor at WVU. Nutter was aware of her situation and suggested the Amateur Radio Club’s services to help her get in touch with her family.

Nutter, formerly the ARC’s faculty advisor, currently serves as a “consultant” for the club and occasionally helps out with hardware repairs.

“I said well, we might be able to help with that, you know?” Nutter said. “I told her I will guarantee delivery. Guarantee it. Many times (the messages) are handed person to person, but I guarantee delivery. I can’t guarantee when, but it will get there.”

So, Hernandez reached out to the ARC, and they were more than happy to help out. But, shortly before the club was about to transmit her message, she received a phone call from her brother on the island.

“He went to the east side of the island (area of San Juan) to get a cell phone signal in order to call me and give me an update on the issues there,” Hernandez said. “Cell phones were not working on the other areas of the island so it wasn’t until the service was reestablished that I was able to speak directly with my mom.”

Cell service and communications weren’t repaired on Hernandez’s family’s part of the island until almost a month after the hurricane had passed.

However, Hernandez’s family was lucky. Even now, almost two months later, most people in Puerto Rico are still without power and communications and many still do not have clean drinking water.

Even though the ARC didn’t get the opportunity to help Hernandez the way they hoped, they are still offering their service to help students and locals in the Morgantown area get in touch with loved ones in Puerto Rico.

“We really just saw that there was a need for communications down in Puerto Rico,” said Troy Pallay, a computer and electrical engineering student at WVU and the club’s communications director. “Some people didn’t have access to cell phones and other standard forms of communication. We have this equipment and we knew we could step in and help people out.”

The club uses long-range ham radio equipment that is stored in the ARC Shack on the roof (11th floor) of the Engineering Sciences Building at WVU. That equipment is attached to a long-range radio antenna on the top of the building that filters the messages through a series of “nets” and operators that are part of the National Traffic System. The messages themselves are limited to about 25 words or 100 characters, and since they are “emergency” messages, they are required to be in a specific format.

“With the emergency communications, everything has to follow a set procedure,” said Cameron Hale, a mechanical and aerospace engineering student and the ARC Shack manager. “We have to use this form and you have to go through (specific) nets to establish that contact.”

Depending on how busy the “nets” and operators are, the messages can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to reach their destination. In Puerto Rico’s case, the message would originate from the ARC Shack, then be filtered through the West Virginia state “net.” Since the messages typically travel the shortest geographical distance, it would then be picked up by an operator in Florida, who would then filter it through to an operator in Puerto Rico, who would distribute the message to the destination and then collect and send the ensuing response.

Since Hernandez was able to get in touch with her family, the ARC hasn’t yet had anyone else reach out to them seeking help.

“I kind of wish we would have come up with this idea a little bit sooner, that way we could have helped more people when they needed it,” Hale said, “That’s kind of our goal with amateur radio. It’s there when all else fails.”

But, the club feels that they are prepared now should another natural disaster happen anytime in the future.

“If something like this were to happen again, within the first few days, we would have a news story out to let people know that we are here and willing to help,” Hale said.