SEBRING —“If you’ll remember,” Ben Henley begins his story about the 2004-05 hurricane season, “there were no phones. We lost service for a week.”
Hurricane Charley knocked out electrical power. Cell phone towers worked on batteries, said Henley, former emergency management coordinator and 911 center boss who retired a few years ago. “But the batteries started going down.”
How did people communicate? Well, Henley said, those were the days before then-Sheriff Susan Benton took over the radio systems for fire, EMS, police departments and the Sheriff’s Office. Each department had its own radios and its own frequencies, but every volunteer fire station, for example, might not be able to communicate with EMS, police and the Sheriff’s Office.
The two dozen guys who rode to the rescue were mostly senior citizens – ham radio operators.
“They were needed countywide,” Henley said. “We needed amateur radio to keep in touch with the shelters.”
Also known as ham, amateur radio is a hobby that brings together people, electronics and communications. It’s fun, it’s social, it’s educational. And during hurricane season, it can be a lifeline in Highlands County.
“That’s one of the reasons why in I’m in amateur radio,” said Neal Hodges, this year’s president of Highlands County Amateur Radio Club. “Watching old Charley come through.”
The license on the wall of his backyard radio shack says W4JNH. “That’s my vanity plate. It has my initials.
“The club is just a place for people who have their license to come together and learn to do things together, in support of a hobby. We learn how to use a radio, radio theory, electronics. We talk to other people in other countries.”
Originally a pejorative term – like ham actors – ham radio operators can send signals over the North Pole, and bounce signals off a dedicated radio satellite, the ionosphere, even off the moon, said club member Randy Payne. They keep in touch with snowbird friends.
In one afternoon, Hodges entered into an international contest and talked to other ham operators in Russia, Chili, Cuba, Canada and Hawaii.
Hodges followed his grandfather into amateur radio in 2007. “I was retired. I wanted something to do as a way of giving back to the community. I got my license the following year.”
Hodges was living in North Carolina at that time. “They had an ice storm. I got a phone call at 1 a.m. ‘Neal, are you available?’ I found myself at the Red Cross building, talking on the radio.”
Two feet of ice and snow had appeared suddenly. The highway patrol had closed the interstate and forced travelers to pull off. A dozen people were stranded.
“They needed me.” Hodges provided the shelter with contact to the outside world. “I was retired.”
In 2004, Hurricane Charley made landfall around Punta Gorda on Aug. 13. On Sept. 6, Hurricane Frances hit New Port Richey. And after everyone said, “Glad that’s over,” Hurricane Jeanne made landfall on Hutchinson Island on Sept. 26.
In 2005, Highlands County got through the entire season without a hurricane. Almost. Hurricane Wilma formed on Oct. 17 southwest of Jamaica and became the strongest recorded cyclone in the Atlantic basin with 185 mph winds. A Category 3 storm struck Florida on Oct. 24.
Charley knocked out electricity. Henley helped the county set up PODs, point of distribution centers for Meals Ready to Eat, water, ice, medications and other necessities at the Avon Park Armory, the Jack Stroup Civic Center and at State 70 in Lake Placid.
“On the ARES side of the house,” Henley said, “they were integral to keeping in contact with those people. We had marginal public safety radio at that time. The storm had knocked out several towers. We lost a lot of repeaters.” The three police departments, the 12 fire departments, the EMS system and their dispatchers struggled to communicate with each other.
“I was in ARES at that time, but I was just a member,” said Payne. “I spent all four storms at the Ag Center, the special needs shelter.
“We’re a total volunteer group. In fact, we can’t be paid,” said Payne, now the ARES emergency coordinator. During one hurricane, he reported for a 12-hour shift, but spent 48 hours on duty because when winds blow at hurricane force, it’s unsafe to drive.
“Every hour, I sent a report that the shelter manager prepared. I read a book. I talked to people. You hope you can find a comfortable place to sleep,” Payne said. “But the county took excellent care of us.”
“Some of the neighborhoods still had water,” Henley said. “But residents with wells had no power to the pump, so no water. Food was becoming a huge issue. The stores closed, because they had no power to operate. They couldn’t sell refrigerated and frozen foods because the power had been off for so long.
“Walmart opened on Day 3, but they were limited to basic services,” Henley said. “There were zero gas stations open on Day 3. They couldn’t operate the pumps. One or two did finally reopen, but once they pumped out all their gas, they couldn’t get resupplied.”
Instead of making round trips at a time when the gasoline supply was critical, Henley asked ham radio operators to order supplies for the PODs. That’s when Highlands County Amateur Radio Club members turned their hobby into an essential emergency service for the community.
“The youngest is Ryan,” Hodges said. “He’s about 30. The oldest is 90. When I moved back here in 2015, I joined. I know we have hurricane here. I have the skills. I can devote my time to it.”
Highlands County Amateur Radio Club is an association with 43 members. ARES is a trained service group with 28 members. “All ARES are club members, but not all club members are ARES,” Payne said. “We do this because we want to help our community. There’s a wide, wide range of things we can do.”
If a hurricane comes to Highlands in 2017, it may find Payne and Hodges at the Bert J. Harris Agri-Civic Center.
“If the cell phones go down, if the electricity turns off, ham may be the only workable system,” said Hodges.
ARES members are needed, Payne said, because many of the 28 members are in northern states during hurricane season. Some of the ones who live here have family requirements.
For club membership information, call Neal Hodges, 314-9134.
To volunteer for ARES, call Randy Payne, 471-3788, or email PayneR1@embarqmail.com