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Amateur Radio Operators Stepped In To Help Communications With Puerto Rico


When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last week, power lines were knocked down, cell towers were destroyed, landlines were cut off. So amateur radio operators stepped in.


ANGEL VAZQUEZ: Just in case, let me just see if we have any answers to the relays. Whiskey Papa Three Radio listening.

MCEVERS: That is Angel Vazquez in Puerto Rico. Twice a day he broadcasts to the continental U.S.


GREG DOBER: Whiskey Papa Three Radio, November Three Mike Victor Fox.

MCEVERS: And that is Greg Dober, another ham radio volunteer. He lives in Pittsburgh. These two guys are part of an informal network of ham radio operators who relay messages about how people in Puerto Rico are doing back to family and friends here. And Greg Dober is on the line with us now. Welcome to the show.

DOBER: Thank you.

MCEVERS: So for people who don't totally know, can you explain how ham radio works?

DOBER: The way it works, it's just the old technology. Basically what we do is we have an antenna. We have a radio. And in that case, with talking to Angel, we use - for baby boomers it's called shortwave. But it's basically like when you were growing up with a set of walkie-talkies but just a little bit more power and a little bit more sophistication.

MCEVERS: And it sounds like the way these messages are coming out of Puerto Rico and getting to the mainland is like a game of telephone. Could you just sort of explain how that network works in Puerto Rico?

DOBER: Yeah, it's almost - like you said, it's like a party line. In this case, if we have a network and the ham operators in Puerto Rico are checking into the network and there is a net controller, basically that's like your telephone operator. And the telephone operator is connecting other ham radio operators in the United States who have checked into that network to say, I'm willing to take messages. And Angel was one of the first Puerto Rican ham operators to actually get on and say, I need to get word out that we're OK. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time when he called.

MCEVERS: Wow. So we've got a little bit of one of your conversations, the last part of one of your conversations. Let's just listen to that for a second.


VAZQUEZ: Yeah, great. Yeah, N Three Mike Victor Fox, go ahead.

DOBER: Roger. I did get a hold of Shirley (ph). She's very happy about hearing about Tony (ph). And I talked to Karen (ph) and told her about Phil (ph). You can relay to Phil that she's also going to tell Phil's mother that he's doing fine.

VAZQUEZ: Roger, roger, roger. So...

MCEVERS: Wow. That - so that's you talking to Angel Vazquez.

DOBER: Correct. He had already gave me some messages to run. And then what I did is I made the phone calls. And then he obviously wants to confirm them with the people that, you know, asked for the message to be sent, so he would get back on and ask that you confirm that you got a hold of the contacts that he wanted you to make.

MCEVERS: How many messages have you relayed since the hurricane hit?

DOBER: Myself about a hundred.

MCEVERS: Oh, wow. And what's - what are one or two that, you know, are you know you're going to remember for a long time?

DOBER: Honestly, there was one woman who - she just broke down in tears when I told her. And she actually called me back five minutes later and she basically asked me, you just called me. And what you told me, I want to hear it again to make sure I heard it right.

MCEVERS: And what had you told her?

DOBER: I told her that, yes, I did call you five minutes ago. And the news I gave you is the news that your loved one is OK.

MCEVERS: And so she just had to hear it one more time?

DOBER: She had to hear it one more time, yes. And like I said, as soon as I told her - and it's odd because you're telling people - I mean, I was calling people in California, in Texas. And you're telling them, hi, I'm from Pittsburgh, Pa., and I have news out of Arecibo for you or out of Puerto Rico. So for them it's kind of like, what? You know, that's not the way they're expecting to get their news.

MCEVERS: It makes sense that they would be like, wait, is this for real?

DOBER: Right. And so that was kind of it. Usually we ham operators are considered boring individuals, you know? And one young woman said to me - after I told her she said, you guys rock. And that I wasn't expecting to hear either because you don't really hear that as a ham radio operator.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Do you ever check back in with people? You know, have you had sort of reason to?

DOBER: No, I've not, only because, again, you know, it's kind of one of those things where I think people are still in shock. These people are just so happy to hear that they're - especially in this situation where we're still - we're into a week after the hurricane and there's still people without electricity maybe for months and communication. So really I think that, you know, they deserve a little bit of privacy.

MCEVERS: Well, Greg Dober, ham radio operator, thank you so much.

DOBER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.