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Ham radio vital link for Kauai during Iniki

by Gregg K. Kakesako (Star Bulletin) 1992

As the eye of Hurricane Iniki hovered over Kekaha on Sept. 11, Kauai Mayor JoAnn Yukimura was forced to turn to a sole ham radio operator on Oahu as the only communication with Gov. John Waihee and the state Civil Defense officials.

The Garden island already had been hit by hurricane gusts, clocked at more than 200 mph, knocking out the island's telephone microwave links and electrical power at about 1:20pm.

Billy Gomban, an amateur radio operator, already had been monitoring the situation from his rig in his Village Park home in Kunia. His vigil would last nearly round-the-clock for two days until commercial radio links were restored. With all commercial radio and telephone equipment knocked off the air by the hurricane, Yukimura turned to the amateur radio located in the emergency operations center in the Lihue County Building.

"This looks like a bad one," Gomban recalled Yukimura telling Waihee just as the first wall of the hurricane muscled its way onto Kauai flattening homes.

"The governor, using a ham radio in the state Civil Defense bunker, reassured her that he had already informed the Federal Emergency Management Agency and that help would be on it's way.

"Eventually, we were able to rig a phone patch so Mayor Yukimura could contact the governor no matter where he was on Oahu as long as he was near a phone during the crucial hours."

Gomban, a data communications specialist for GTE/Hawaiian Tel, said restoration of vital telephone links between Kauai and Oahu was helped by another amateur radio operator, Vince Soeda, who also worked as an engineer for the phone company.

"Vince took his ham radio to Kauai on Saturday - the day after the hurricane hit - and went to the company's two microwave dishes at Kalepa and Kukalono and was able to tell technicians in Honolulu exactly what the problem was."

"Without the ham radio setup it would have taken a lot longer to restore phone service between Oahu and Kauai"

Gomban explained that although all of the radio antennas and microwave dishes had been knocked down on Kauai, ham radio operators on Oahu used his antenna, located on Mauna Kapu 2000 feet above Mililani to boost their signals to Kauai.

Gomban credits a mainland tourist, whose name he never got, for saving the lives of at least five kidney patients being treated at Wilcox Hospital in Lihue the day the hurricane slammed into Kauai.

"Using a five-watt, portable, hand-held radio, the tourist was able to contact Bob Hlivak, who called the Red Cross, to order badly needed medications and other supplies."

"There were at least 50 patients at Wilcox undergoing kidney-dialysis treatment when the hurricane hit, leaving the hospital without electricity and water... at least five of them were so critical that they had to be evacuated from Kauai."

Other hams such as Joe Keola and Jonathan Briones packed their own radio gear, food, clothing and generators and spent time in Koloa and Lihue to help provide communications with Oahu.

Gomban, a former Navy radioman, explained that all this was possible because of the Mililani antenna, which extended the range of Oahu's amateur radios who's normal range is limited to line of sight.

With the Mililani repeater antenna, Gomban said, Oahu amateur operator can cover the entire state with only limited difficulty during any emergency.

In planning for future emergencies, Gomban said ham radio operators should be looked upon as a separate communication link whose equipment should be kept apart from commercial operations.

"We survived the hurricane," Gomban said, "because we were not part of the technology used, but because we stand alone and apart."

Billy's note: This article in no way, shape or form, represents the countless other amateur radio operators that also assisted Kauai on their hour of need. There were many of you who have helped...

For those not mentioned we say "MAHALO" and lets all hope we don't have do it again...

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