AN ON-THE-SCENE ACCOUNT OF THE NORTH DAKOTA FLOODS
By Ann S. Shaver, WH2E
"It's just like Armageddon, only everyone is alive!" Thus did Salvation Army Major Pat McPherson, WW9E, describe conditions at the shelter for flood victims established in April at the Grand Forks Air Force Base.
"This is truly a disaster. I've never seen shelters actually used like this before. There are 3,000 people here now. Usually, most people find their own resources. Grand Forks is the second largest place in the state, a town of 51,000. These folks at the shelter are the ones who have no other resources.
"When the immediate crisis is over, these people will still have nowhere to go. The Salvation Army realizes that and is making a long-term commitment to them."
"Amateur radio has played a big part in all the disaster-relief efforts. From my perspective, I know SATERN (Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network) has been essential in our own operations," Major McPherson, himself an ardent amateur, raved. "Our training on 20-Meter nets particularly has stood us in good stead."
"We (The Salvation Army) are responsible for providing food for the entire Grand Forks shelter. Tom Romstadt, W9NIC, is at The Army's distribution center over in Fargo. Bill Heaver, KB8QMP, is with another supply operation. We have several mobile canteens in service, each with at least one communicator as part of the team. You can imagine how important it is to have reliable communications and we need HF to be able to coordinate all this. Unfortunately, the Air Force doesn't understand that we need an antenna on the top of the hangar to do what we have to do.
"Here at the shelter, we put a dipole on the side of the hangar. Of course it's metal so that was like transmitting directly into a dummy load! We're hoping to explain the situation to the Air Force authorities soon and convince them.
"In the meantime, we are relying on relay stations. Bill Davidson, K9SWW, put up a 2-Meter beam here at the shelter. We can reach W9HV V in Crookston, about 40 miles away. W9ZCL, Bill Shillington in Mount Prospect, IL, is helping with relays all over the place. Ross Turner, K9STP, from Morrison, IL, is also running hard.
"We have experienced SATERN operators throughout the Midwest who are running hard. Tony Dacres, AA8EI, is coming from Cincinnati to Fargo to relieve Tom. Like Tom, Tony will be up there by himself so he will be doing a lot of things at the distribution center besides handling communications.
"Floyd Soo, W8RO, and his team in Mt. Clemons, Michigan, are on standby, waiting to come out here as reliefs. The cooperation, the eagerness to help is so impressive.
"Walt Mertz, KØCLD, and his wife, Eunice, KAØSOM, came over from Minot and really saved the day for us with a Butternut vertical on the back of their camper here at the shelter. They've been very aggressive in getting our traffic through. They're running hard for The Army."
In truth, a lot of people are "running hard for The Army." There are so many, in fact, that Major McPherson readily admits that right now he has no idea of the names or call signs of the scores of people who have contributed their time and talents to relief efforts. And in Amateur Radio's finest tradition, many organizations, many clubs, many individuals have joined together to do what they can to mitigate suffering.
"There is great cooperation among the different radio groups. Bill Heist, WB8BZH, is the North Dakota SATERN coordinator and also the RACES director for Minot. MIDCARS is doing a great job relaying messages. South Dakota ARES is involved. Radio-wise, things are just great.
Get Here ASAP
"I was scheduled to be here Tuesday (April 22), to co-ordinate tactical communications for Minnesota. On Saturday (April 19), Major Dave Dahlberg, National Coordinator of Disaster Services for The Salvation Army, called me and told me to get here ASAP. The woman who is head of MARS (Military Amateur Radio System) for Minnesota had called The Salvation Army there, basically calling for reinforcements. There's a great group of amateurs up there--now brand new SATERN members! Everyone is running so hard, I'm just sorry I don't yet know names and call signs.
"Right now, things are very hectic."
To say the least! In fact, interviewing Major McPherson by telephone, from the comfort of my own desk with lots of paper and pencils, was easily the most difficult interview I've done since the 1960s when I covered rock 'n' roll festivals for a large metropolitan daily. Even Major McPherson, who considers "difficult operating conditions" to be his normal environment, admitted the situation at the Grand Forks shelter was extremely challenging.
A major flood is like the paradox facing the Ancient Mariner--"water, water everywhere, nor a drop to drink." The entire town of Grand Forks had to be evacuated because the water supply was compromised. Put more bluntly, it was contaminated. No water for cooking or drinking, no water for showers, no water for flushing toilets. The town and its surrounding region was literally a disaster area.
"The motel where we’re staying is charging the same rate, but there's no maid service. Even if we had water, we couldn't flush the toilets because the sewage has no place to go," Major McPherson explained.
"You might say we're learning to enjoy each other."
All systems are overtaxed
The water supply is almost as precarious at the Air Force Base, site of the shelter. "Things are very fragile here at the Base. The Commanding Officer mentioned in today's briefing that their own water supplies are becoming taxed, that we may have to implement some form of water conservation soon." Again, how ironic to be faced with water rationing because of a flood!
The phone system, too, is close to being overloaded, Major McPherson reported. "That's why it's so good to have back-up communications in place. We want to be confident of our back-up systems before the phones go down altogether, which we expect to happen very soon."
Among other assignments, SATERN volunteers are shadowing all the Salvation Army principals. "To tell you the truth," Major McPherson continued, " the officers don't like having someone follow them around all the time. I guess when we have time, we'll have to do some educating so they understand the value of 'shadows.' Officers like Jon Wallace, N5OEB, who have been through
something like this before (note: Wallace was sent to Oklahoma City in the bombing aftermath, saw the value of Amateur Radio, and got his license shortly after his 'special assignment' was complete) really come to rely on the 'shadows' for more than just communication assistance. But, like the song says, ‘You've got to be taught.’
"Most officers, however, don't realize that cellular phones don't always work, that the wired-phone system might go down. What's more, we find that whereas an Officer might turn off his phone or let the battery run down, the Amateur "shadow" understands that it is his responsibility to be reachable at all times.
"Cell phones have a place in an emergency but they can be awfully inefficient. With an 'all-points bulletin,' you have to make numerous individual calls. Sometimes you do need a private conversation, but most of the conversations we have in this type of situation rightly should be heard by all concerned. There are so many reasons why amateur radio still has an important place in disaster-relief efforts.
"Until you've been through something like this, you just don't appreciate what SATERN has to offer. SATERN volunteers, of course, understand that communication is their first responsibility but they are expected to contribute in other ways, too. For instance, a canteen communication has been cross-trained to know how to help with food service as well.
"But it’s not just The Salvation Army that doesn’t recognize how much hams can contribute to disaster services. Amateurs in general need to educate the public, especially relief workers, about the role they can play," Major McPherson elaborated.
It might be quite a while before Major McPherson has time to take on any additional projects. SATERN members responded in force to the devastating tornadoes that ripped through Arkansas and Tennessee in March. Before he was able to compile information for a report on that, he and other SATERN members were sent to southern Indiana in the aftermath of the Ohio River flooding. Then, before he could report on either of those operations, it was on to the Upper Plains --and a few days sooner than planned, at that. Of course, this is what SATERN is all about--using communication and other skills to help people in need!