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Radio team connects families

At one point during the first week after Hurricane Katrina, Salvation Army Major Pat McPherson was on three phone calls at once.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BALTIMORE | September 16, 2005

At one point during the first week after Hurricane Katrina, Salvation Army Major Pat McPherson was on three phone calls at once.

That was all in a day's work him, the national director of the Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network (SATERN), as he tried to help families find their loved ones in the hurricane-ravaged region.

SATERN is a HAM radio team that not only helps its onsite Salvation Army volunteers be in touch with the national office, but also helps families find each other when a disaster wipes out other forms of communication.

After Katrina, McPherson said SATERN got a record amount of the "health and welfare information requests."

"We received more than 60,000 inquiries and we've found 8,418 people so far," he said. "We were able to reconnect them with family and friends. We find more each day."

He said they could not have located as many people as they did without the help of the thousands of volunteer HAM radio operators around the country and the volunteers who staffed phone lines. The Computer Sciences Corporation in Dallas also deserves tremendous credit, he said, because of the capacity it was able to provide. The company offered technical help and had its staff searching databases of survivors as well.

McPherson said SATERN even helped emergency responders find survivors when all communication lines were down in some of the hardest hit communities. "Some people were able to get one line out to contact their relatives and say we need help," he explained. "They then contacted us and we were able to direct crews toward them."

The SATERN health and welfare request process goes like this. A family member with an inquiry can call or fill out an online request form with SATERN. That information goes to Quent Nelson, the SATERN health and welfare coordinator, in his Atlanta office. He then logs onto his radio-internet computer, called Echolink.

Through Echolink, Nelson is able to see which HAM radio operators are online in the areas he needs to contact to find the loved one. Nelson said if he can't find an operator in the needed area, he'll find the next closest area. "I may not be able to find any close operators because of power outages," he said.

But he can at least give the inquirers peace of mind if a Salvation Army shelter is nearby where the loved one might be. "Sometimes that's all I can do until I find someone close by - just tell folks that a shelter is open and people are there caring for the disaster families," said Nelson.

After Hurricane Katrina, so many variables went into the entire process both finding loved ones and sometimes directing emergency crews to stranded people that McPherson said he knows God had a hand in it somehow.

"There are things that have happened all along the path, what with people just showing up right when we needed a particular kind of help, and then others letting the public know what we do. That then created an influx of people who wanted to help."

Through his 3,000 emails each day, he said at least 1,000 were people asking to become one of the HAM radio links in their network. McPherson said that while not all of them will stay on as volunteers for future disasters, the team will still get a valuable addition of more operators that will only help SATERN in future disasters.

"The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina was not good, but our ability to help out in this tragedy was good."

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