Hurricane Ivan 2004 – Emergency radio service in Grenada

Grenada is a volcanic island of 90,000 people that is a major producer of nutmeg, cloves and other spices.  Its known as the “Spice Island”.

A map of the Caribbean highlighting the location of Grenada
A map of the Caribbean highlighting the location of Grenada.

On Tuesday 7th September 2004 Grenada was was struck by Hurricane Ivan (a category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale).

For nearly 12 hours the island was subjected to storm force winds in excess of 220 km/hr.

When it was all over the following morning the “Spice Island” was devastated.

When Hurricane Ivan slammed into Grenada it caused structural damage to approximately 90% of the country’s homes and to nearly every major building in the Grenadian capital of Saint George’s, it cut power lines and took out all the island’s communication links.

A NOAA satellite image of Hurricane Ivan taken at 3:45 pm ET on Tuesday 7th September 2004 showing the eye heading west over Grenada, with sustained winds near 220 km/h
A NOAA satellite image of Hurricane Ivan taken at 3:45 pm ET on Tuesday 7th September 2004 showing the eye heading west over Grenada, with sustained winds near 220 km/h.

Hurricane Ivan destroyed the island’s emergency operations centre, the Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell’s residence, the prison, many schools, and damaged the main hospital.

Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell told BBC Radio:  “We have got a tremendous hit that we never expected – you are talking hundreds of millions of dollars of damage. We have declared the country a national disaster, contacted our international friends and indicated that… I am pretty sure we have taken a tremendous hit in the nutmeg industry, which is a key barometer of our economic development”.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan, at around 9pm on the Wednesday 8th September 2004 I received an urgent call from the Barbados Defence Force (BDF) requesting help to set up an emergency communications system.

Grenada - Island wide devastation in the aftermath of the Hurricane Ivan
Island wide devastation in the aftermath of the Hurricane Ivan.

Following Hurricane Ivan The Barbados Defence Force was assisting the Grenada Police Force as part of the Eastern Caribbean Regional Security System (RSS). This Regional Security Force was helping police Grenada where post Hurricane Ivan a dusk-to-dawn curfew had been put into effect to restrict looting, however, lack of effective radio communications was hampering progress.  The Grenada Police Force had lost all their radio communication systems in Hurricane Ivan.

Within 24 hours of receiving the call, we had in place a solution that would use mobile radio base stations and portable hand-held radios, held by the Barbados Defence Force supplemented with Mobile & Marine Systems stock.  The aim was to provide an island wide emergency communication backbone for the Grenada Police Force.

Grenada - Island wide devastation in the aftermath of the Hurricane Ivan
Island wide devastation in the aftermath of the Hurricane Ivan.

We decided to use a Tait T800II Portable Repeater and a mixture of Tait T2015 Mobile Radio Base Stations and Tait Orca T3000 / T5000 portable hand-held radios. The radios were programmed with the repeater and a number of simplex channels and marine VHF channels.

By next morning we had the equipment ready to go, however, getting transport into Grenada proved to be a problem. Point Salines International Airport was officially closed to traffic as the control tower had sustained damage.

I finally hitched a ride at around 2pm on Thursday 9th September 2004 (two days after the hurricane had hit Grenada) on the RSS operated aircraft. The plane was loaded to maximum with equipment and 5 passengers who were part of an international assessment team.

On the 40 minute flight down to Grenada there was the usual talk with each of us telling what our area of interest was. However, as the plane banked over the Southern part of Grenada all conversation ceased as the size of the damage to the island became apparent.

Once on the ground the plane was quickly unloaded and our communication equipment was stacked on the tarmac and the aircraft departed from whence it came.  It was very apparent I was now on my own!

I managed to find someone from the Grenada Police Force and he arranged for an open truck to carry me to the Fort George Police Headquarters. The drive from the Airport was very slow due to fallen trees, poles and debris from roofs. The pictures do not tell the story of the destruction. No building seems to have escaped damage.

After about 90 minutes we arrived at Fort George Police Headquarters. A 5 mile journey that normally takes 10 to 15 minutes. Fort George is the site of a 200 year old fort. It is on a 200 meter high hill overlooking the capital, St. George’s. The Police station which has a concrete roof had generally remained intact albeit most of its windows were missing.

After a short meeting with the Commissioner of Police, I learnt that the Grenada Police Force had lost all their communication systems in the Hurricane.  I erected a temporary antenna on a hand rail and ran 20 meters of coaxial cable to the Tait T800II Portable Repeater. Given the emergency conditions, the Tait T800II Portable Repeater was left in the open sealed in a plastic bag to protect it from the elements. I switched on the internal battery and we had a working repeater system, all in about 45 minutes of arriving at Fort George Police station! This Tait T800II Portable Repeater worked using its internal battery until the next day when we were able to secure an AC power connection from a nearby standby generator.

Having set up the  radio repeater,  hand-helds radios were quickly passed out to Police patrols on-the-ground.

I then returned to Point Salines where I set up a  radio base station this time using a car battery as the power source.

The next day, Friday 10th September 2004, I set up another TAIT VHF radio base station at Point Salines International Airport. An ICOM IC-78 HF transceiver  with a  AT120E Automatic Tuner was installed to communicate back to BDF Headquarters in Barbados.  A long wire antenna was stretched from a flag pole to the Airport building. This was also used by the Radio amateur network in relaying messages of a health and welfare nature.

I also returned to Fort George Police Headquarters where  the portable radio repeater was relocated to a secure room, but with some windows missing. The antenna was moved to the highest point at Fort George.

In emergency situations like the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan in Grenada the Tait T800II Portable Radio Repeater is a logical choice. It is light. It is robust. It is water proof. The internal batteries make it a self contained unit. All that is needed is an antenna and a length of coaxial cable to connect it to the N-Type connector on the top of the unit. Another advantage is that it can be used as a base station as well, which under emergency conditions free up scarce portable radios for use in the field.  Restoring Police communications using a basic radio repeater system the Grenada Police Force was able to quickly restore order to the country in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan emergency.

Even though this Tait equipment was handled very roughly on its journey from Barbados to Grenada and on the trip from the airport where it travelled in the back of an open truck, it has performed with out a hitch.

The Hurricane Ivan disaster in Grenada has proved, as if we did not already know it, that despite all of the hype about modern technology nothing can replace a basic radio repeater system. When I arrived in Grenada there was little operational communications. Two of the cell phones suppliers were totally off the air and the third had very limited coverage. The few cell sites that were still operational were quickly overloaded and getting through was very sporadic. A few satellite phones were brought in, but as soon as their batteries went dead that was the end.

The Barbados Defence Force and Mobile & Marine Systems initially operated the Tait T2015 Mobile Radio Base Stations using car batteries until a generator could be obtained.

Likewise the chargers for the Tait portable hand-held radios were also powered from a number of salvaged car batteries which were readily available from vehicles wrecked by falling trees. The internal battery in the Tait T800II Repeater can operate for over 24 hours and is ideal for emergency situations.

The Eastern Caribbean Regional Security System Force left Grenada on the 15th December 2004. The operation was very successful in maintaining law and order, delivering and controlling relief supplies and repairing or rebuilding critically damaged infrastructure. This has been a good example of where the people of the Eastern Caribbean came together to help a neighbour in a time of dire crisis.

I visited Grenada again during the first week in December 2004 and was pleased to see the rate of reconstruction that had taken place. Electricity and telephones were back up as were the cell phones. The tourist industry still needed a lot of rebuilding but most hoteliers are taking this chance to improve their operation. When they  fully reopened in the middle of 2005, Grenada had a very modern hotel plant which rivals any in the Caribbean.

Cellular systems, multi site trunked radio and digital radio systems rely on complex signalling between handsets and repeater sites. The control computers for this are usually at a remote site.  After a disaster these links, usually radio and overhead wire or fibre can be broken. This results is complete system failure!

The  cell phones will be overloaded resulting in dropped and missed  calls. The emergency services cannot tolerate this in a crisis.

With an analogue radio system radios can be quickly programmed on repeater channels and simplex frequencies. This allows greater communication flexibility between different services.

Below are a selection of photos from Grenada.  You can click on the thumbnail images below to see a larger image with captions.

 

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