The Maritime Mobile Service Net Part 4

This is the Fourth installment in our 5 part series on the Maritime Mobile Service Net by John Emery

Not all emergencies happen at sea.

It was the fourth night after Hurricane Katrina, and nearly a thousand patients, doctors and staff were trapped at Medical Center Louisiana in downtown New Orleans, surrounded by floodwaters. Outside, reports were grim. People were drowning in their attics. Inside the hospital, there was no running water, no power, no phones and no Internet. Cell phones didn’t work. Each day the authorities said evacuations were about to begin, but nothing happened.

Just when things seemingly couldn’t get worse, , a pregnant woman dragged herself out of the foul, dark water surrounding the center’s Charity Hospital, having managed to swim several blocks in the dark from her home, where she had been trapped. She was in labor and the pain was intensifying. Yet with no running water, no electricity, and no way to clean her up or to sterilize instruments, surgery was out of the question.

Let’s turn the clock back two years. When the two hospitals making up New Orleans’ Medical Center—University and Charity hospitals—decided to set up their emergency communication station two years ago, they looked around for volunteers to run it. Richard Webb NF5B and his wife, Kathleen Anderson KC0HZU, who is also a ham, raised their hands. They set up the station and tested it every week or so.

The night before Katrina hit, Webb pushed Anderson—she uses a wheelchair—to their van and she drove them to the hospital from their small home in suburban Slidell, Louisiana. Pretty much every other vehicle they encountered during that 30-mile trip was heading out of, not into, downtown New Orleans. At the hospital, this unlikely A-Team—a blind man and a woman in a wheelchair—set up their antennas, batteries, radios and gasoline-fired generators, got on the air, tracked the approaching storm and rode it out.

The night the woman in labor swam to the hospital, hospital employee Tim Butcher shook Richard Webb awake and told him that she needed a helicopter. “We have a two-hour window to get her out of here,” Butcher said. Otherwise the mother would probably die, and the baby might, too. Webb ran to his radio, broke in on the Maritime Mobile Service Network and called to relay a message to anyone who could help.

On this evening, the first ham that Webb could reach was a fellow member of the Maritime Mobile Service Network in Texas. The Texas ham contacted a Net member in Cleveland—who was also an auxiliary Coast Guard officer. The Cleveland ham contacted his superior officers, and within a short time the patient was being airlifted to another hospital, where she had a C-section. At last report both mother and baby were doing well.

Webb and his fellow Maritime Net members saved one life that night, Butcher says, maybe two. And no one knows how many other people at the hospital might have died if Webb and his radio had not been there. Butcher’s sure of one thing: “Richard is a real hero.”

Tomorrow: Four Decades and Going Strong

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