CNN
Now playing
04:12
Grandmother rations crackers in Puerto Rico
Stacks upon stacks of bottled water sit near a runway in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, on September 12, 2018.
Julian Quiñones/CNN
Stacks upon stacks of bottled water sit near a runway in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, on September 12, 2018.
Now playing
02:42
See untouched water bottles in Puerto Rico
SAN ISIDRO, PUERTO RICO - OCTOBER 15:  Uncollected debris stand near damaged homes in an area without electricity on October 15, 2017 in San Isidro, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is suffering shortages of food and water in many areas and only 15 percent of grid electricity has been restored. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, swept through.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Mario Tama/Getty Images South America/Getty Images
SAN ISIDRO, PUERTO RICO - OCTOBER 15: Uncollected debris stand near damaged homes in an area without electricity on October 15, 2017 in San Isidro, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is suffering shortages of food and water in many areas and only 15 percent of grid electricity has been restored. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, swept through. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:39
Puerto Rico revises Hurricane Maria death toll
title:  duration: 00:00:00 site:  author:  published:  intervention: yes description: Radio Isla had access to vans that contained water, food, medicine and hundreds of open boxes, many of them with reptile waste and in a state of decomposition. According to sources, the supplies were for the victims of the hurricanes.
Radio Isla
title: duration: 00:00:00 site: author: published: intervention: yes description: Radio Isla had access to vans that contained water, food, medicine and hundreds of open boxes, many of them with reptile waste and in a state of decomposition. According to sources, the supplies were for the victims of the hurricanes.
Now playing
01:24
Supplies sent to Puerto Rico found abandoned
MOROVIS, PUERTO RICO - DECEMBER 20:  A resident, whose home remains without electricity, watches as debris is removed on December 20, 2017 in Morovis, Puerto Rico. Barely three months after Hurricane Maria made landfall, approximately one-third of the devastated island is still without electricity and 14 percent lack running water. While the official death toll from the massive storm remains at 64, The New York Times recently reported the actual toll for the storm and its aftermath likely stands at more than 1,000. Puerto Rico's governor has ordered a review and recount as the holiday season approaches.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Mario Tama/Getty Images/File
MOROVIS, PUERTO RICO - DECEMBER 20: A resident, whose home remains without electricity, watches as debris is removed on December 20, 2017 in Morovis, Puerto Rico. Barely three months after Hurricane Maria made landfall, approximately one-third of the devastated island is still without electricity and 14 percent lack running water. While the official death toll from the massive storm remains at 64, The New York Times recently reported the actual toll for the storm and its aftermath likely stands at more than 1,000. Puerto Rico's governor has ordered a review and recount as the holiday season approaches. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:47
Possible epidemic in Puerto Rico after Maria hit
CNN
Now playing
02:04
Suspected deadly bacteria cases in Puerto Rico (2017)
With hurricane season starting June 1, CNN returns to Puerto Rico to see if the island is ready for another storm. Nine months after Maria, 20,000 homes are still without power- and going into the season, many mayors are worried that even a small storm will plunge them back into darkness and repeat the crisis all over again. We witness desperate Puerto Ricans illegally and dangerously turning on their own power, and press officials for answers on what will change this time around.
CNN
With hurricane season starting June 1, CNN returns to Puerto Rico to see if the island is ready for another storm. Nine months after Maria, 20,000 homes are still without power- and going into the season, many mayors are worried that even a small storm will plunge them back into darkness and repeat the crisis all over again. We witness desperate Puerto Ricans illegally and dangerously turning on their own power, and press officials for answers on what will change this time around.
Now playing
01:05
Questions surround Hurricane Maria death toll
Guest: Mayor Carmen Cruz from San Juan, PR (Facetime) Anderson in Studio 73 / Control 71 (channel 67)   Please record CTL 7100 Switched Please record CTL 7103 Clean Switched Please record CTL 7138 AC ISO Please record CTL 7139 Splits Please record CTL 7140 Big Smalls Please record GFX 905 Cruz ISO
CNN
Guest: Mayor Carmen Cruz from San Juan, PR (Facetime) Anderson in Studio 73 / Control 71 (channel 67) Please record CTL 7100 Switched Please record CTL 7103 Clean Switched Please record CTL 7138 AC ISO Please record CTL 7139 Splits Please record CTL 7140 Big Smalls Please record GFX 905 Cruz ISO
Now playing
01:59
San Juan mayor: Trump showed terrible neglect
CNN
Now playing
01:58
CNN anchor presses PR governor on death count
SAN ISIDRO, PUERTO RICO - OCTOBER 05:  Kids bike in an area without grid power or running water about two weeks after Hurricane Maria swept through the island on October 5, 2017 in San Isidro, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, swept through.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Mario Tama/Getty Images
SAN ISIDRO, PUERTO RICO - OCTOBER 05: Kids bike in an area without grid power or running water about two weeks after Hurricane Maria swept through the island on October 5, 2017 in San Isidro, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, swept through. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Now playing
03:36
Puerto Ricans repair power lines themselves
ricardo rossello
CNN
ricardo rossello
Now playing
02:13
Rossello: Hell to pay if data not available
MOROVIS, PUERTO RICO - DECEMBER 20:  A resident, whose home remains without electricity, watches as debris is removed on December 20, 2017 in Morovis, Puerto Rico. Barely three months after Hurricane Maria made landfall, approximately one-third of the devastated island is still without electricity and 14 percent lack running water. While the official death toll from the massive storm remains at 64, The New York Times recently reported the actual toll for the storm and its aftermath likely stands at more than 1,000. Puerto Rico's governor has ordered a review and recount as the holiday season approaches.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Mario Tama/Getty Images/File
MOROVIS, PUERTO RICO - DECEMBER 20: A resident, whose home remains without electricity, watches as debris is removed on December 20, 2017 in Morovis, Puerto Rico. Barely three months after Hurricane Maria made landfall, approximately one-third of the devastated island is still without electricity and 14 percent lack running water. While the official death toll from the massive storm remains at 64, The New York Times recently reported the actual toll for the storm and its aftermath likely stands at more than 1,000. Puerto Rico's governor has ordered a review and recount as the holiday season approaches. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:20
Study: Puerto Rico hurricane death toll near 5,000
A Puerto Rico Electric and Power Authority brigade work in a remote off-road location to repair a downed power transmission line in Ponce, Puerto Rico on November 29, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO / TO GO WITH AFP STORY By Leila MACOR, US-PuertoRico-power-weather-reconstruction-hurricane        (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images/FILE
A Puerto Rico Electric and Power Authority brigade work in a remote off-road location to repair a downed power transmission line in Ponce, Puerto Rico on November 29, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO / TO GO WITH AFP STORY By Leila MACOR, US-PuertoRico-power-weather-reconstruction-hurricane (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:20
Puerto Rico suffers island-wide power outage
Blue tarps are still the only roofs for some homes in Corozal.
Leyla Santiago/CNN
Blue tarps are still the only roofs for some homes in Corozal.
Now playing
02:46
Puerto Rico 6 months after Hurricane Maria
CNN
Now playing
03:47
Deaths in PR still attributed to Maria
CNN
Now playing
03:45
Hurricane Maria evacuees living in FL motels

Story highlights

In Maria's wake, shortwave radio has been key to communicating in Puerto Rico

Fifty amateur ham radio operators are headed there to support recovery operations

CNN —  

The phone call from the Red Cross came in late Friday night, just as the full scale of Hurricane Maria’s calamity began taking shape.

“We need 50 of your best radio operators to go down to Puerto Rico.”

In the days after the worst storm in three generations hit the American island – and for many more to come – public electrical, land-line and cellular communication systems showed few signs of life. And radio networks used routinely by police officers, power company workers and other first responder still were down.

Yet, a key mode of communication – one not reliant on infrastructure vulnerable to strong winds and flooding – still crackled: the “ham” radio.

Answering the phone that night in Connecticut was the emergency manager for the American Radio Relay League, the group’s CEO said. For more than a century, this group has served as a hub for amateurs licensed to operate the dependable, if archaic, medium known as ham radio and eager to pitch in when disaster strikes.

When the Red Cross made its latest appeal for heroes, these were the people it had in mind.

Jumping to respond to disaster

Already gearing up on his own that night to go to work, turning knobs and flipping switches, was Oscar Resto.

As one of dozens of ham – shorthand for “amateur” – operators across Puerto Rico, Resto had been authorized by the Federal Communications Commission to use radios, computers, satellites or the Internet to assist and support public safety during emergencies.

Often untethered from wires and cables, operators share information by voice, Morse code and other methods on a wide range of frequencies above the AM broadcast band. Such communications were critical during rescue operations after the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

Oscar Resto works with another volunteer to pass along information at the Red Cross headquarters in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Courtesy Oscar Resto
Oscar Resto works with another volunteer to pass along information at the Red Cross headquarters in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

For three days after Maria hit, Resto sawed through the downed trees that separated his home from the road, he told CNN. Then he packed his car with radio gear, left his family and made the 25-mile journey to a makeshift Red Cross headquarters, where generators and batteries could power his equipment.

“I have the responsibility to establish the required emergency communications that the American Red Cross needed for understanding the needs of the citizens impacted by the hurricane,” said Resto, a section manager for the American Radio Relay League, which boasts 160,000 members.

Survivors needed food, water, shelter and fuel to power generators after Maria knocked out the entire electrical grid. They also needed to communicate, to share critical information about diabetics nearing the end of their insulin reserves, babies threatened by dehydration, families rationing crackers.

Transmitting radio signals to other ham operators in the Caribbean, Resto and his shortwave brethren traded National Hurricane Center reports on Maria’s position. He also contacted a ham operator in Florida, and asked “just to tell my daughter, Astrid, that we were fine,” he recalled.

Before long, Resto and his compatriots realized their messages were the only ones getting off the island.

In an instant, their mission expanded: Anyone with the requisite skills and equipment was conscripted.

Shoulder to shoulder with first responders

Two ham volunteers, Raul Gonzalez and Jose Santiago, set up a radio control hub run by generator power in Monacillo, near San Juan, and other centers quickly followed suit. There, ham operators work shoulder to shoulder with public safety and utility officials to transmit information to other ham operators working with teams in the field.

A full week after Maria battered their homes, Resto and two dozen other Puerto Rican ham operators were still running radio operations for the police and the local power company, whose own wireless communications systems rely in part on computers and power sources knocked out by the storm.

For instance, ham operators riding with police use radios tuned to the special broadcast frequencies to transmit calls to other ham operators hunkered down at the command centers with officers, who in turn respond with orders.

A power company generator low on fuel? A ham operator from Resto’s team deployed with the power company calls his counterpart at the command center and coordinates a fuel delivery.

Raul Gonzalez and Jose Santiago work to maintain the communication infrastructure they set up between ham radio operators in the Monacillo Control Center.
Courtesy Oscar Resto
Raul Gonzalez and Jose Santiago work to maintain the communication infrastructure they set up between ham radio operators in the Monacillo Control Center.

For his part, Resto learned Tuesday via a ham radio at the command center that an unsanitary hospital in western Puerto Rico was transferring patients to another hospital. It was just one of countless threads of information squawked across the operational frequencies in a massive effort to deliver relief and supplies.

“I am very proud of them,” Resto said of his crew of amateurs. “They are the real heroes.”

More help on the way

Less than 48 hours after the American Radio Relay League’s emergency manager fielded the Red Cross’ call, 350 ham operators had offered to help, said Tom Gallagher, the group’s CEO.

Fifty of them prepared this week to embark upon a three-week deployment to Puerto Rico. They include retired executives and public safety officers, and hail from places from Washington to Texas to New Hampshire, he said.

“It’s an incredibly personal sacrifice from individuals who are dedicated to serving communities,” Gallagher said. “They have the skills and the motivation and the sense of responsibility.”

Volunteers will deploy to the island with equipment kits so they can be agile and provide for themselves.
Tom Gallagher/ American Radio Relay League
Volunteers will deploy to the island with equipment kits so they can be agile and provide for themselves.

Volunteers will be outfitted with self-sustaining kits provided by radio manufacturers and dealer partners so they can be agile and won’t burden those they’re trying to help, he said.

Southwest Airlines was due to transport the equipment for free Wednesday from the group’s New York headquarters to Atlanta, where volunteers planned to convene Thursday to board a chartered JetBlue flight for San Juan, Gallagher said.

There, they plan to connect with the Red Cross and likely spread out across Puerto Rico to continue the life-saving work of radio operators already well underway, Gallagher said.

“It’s the first time they’ve asked us to do this on this scale,” he said. “This is why we’re here.”