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02 August 2011

Amateur Radio Emergency Communcations Network activated during heavy snowfall in the Eastern Cape and Kwazulu Natal (26 + 27 July 2011)

HAMNET News: 31 July 2011

When the cell message from Jannie Minney, ZS4JR, on Monday evening came through that the van Reenen pass has been closed due to snow, we realised that something was in the offing. We did not have to wait long!

By 7am on Tuesday morning the severity of the situation hit home and a full blown Hamnet emergency network was activated! Reports of heavy snow falls had been coming in from across the country and with passes closing; this was not going to be a normal day!

It all hit home when we had a report of vehicles stranded in van Reenen pass and one being a Taxi on its way from the Eastern Cape to Gauteng with young children on board plus a pregnant mother and a 25 day old baby. This message was faxed to Johan, ZS1I, by a concerned father in a desperate attempt to locate his family! We ascertained that this Taxi was stuck in heavy snow somewhere between the Tugela Toll Plaza and the Montrose filling station. This covered a large area. Johan approached Hamnet and we set the ball rolling!

We went about trying to establish what was working by way of telephones, cell phones and other means of communication. Jannie informed us that cell phone coverage in the Harrismith area was suspect to doubtful. We also obtained a few telephone numbers related to emergency services and we started phoning various authorities to establish contact with them.

In the mean time, Hamnet had established contact with the N3 Help line who were very helpful regarding the Taxi situation. They had in turn contacted their van Reenen station who in turn made contacted the SANDF to send a team to ‘dig out’ the people stranded in the pass. 15 Squadron had also been activated and at least one chopper was on standby to assist when the weather cleared!

By this time we had numerous stations around the country assisting with the relay of messages and helping with the supply of information on the situation in their respective areas. But, the snow just kept coming down - everywhere!

It was unclear as to how many vehicles were actually trapped in the snow on van Rheenen alone, but for all intents and purposes, all traffic from Pietermaritzburg on the N3 north to the Villiers Toll Plaza had come to a standstill at the Tugela Toll Plaza or were being prevented from travelling. A call had also gone out from various authorities not to allow curious onlookers to visit the snow bound areas as they themselves could become victims!

The Natal Midlands had become a no go area!

However, by 3pm we had the first bit of good news. A report on the van Rheenen situation had been broadcast over Radio 702 and how Hamnet was involved in the rescue effort. A message from Johan, ZS1I indicated that the SANDF had reached the stranded Taxi with food and blankets and that Mr. Philani NKosi, father of the family on board the Taxi had sent a fax to Johan in which he thanked all concerned in this rescue effort.

By this time, Ken Victor, ZS2OC and other Hamnet operators had begun receiving calls from various Disaster Management managers and other interested parties requesting information on road conditions in various parts of the country. We were able to supply a lot of information but we did lack information from some areas where operators did not come on air – probably due to power failures in many areas!

By Wednesday morning the situation was assessed firstly in the 80m band and then on 40. Most Eastern Cape passes had been reopened but one between Noupoort and Middleburg had again been closed due to too much ice on the road and at least one truck that had jack-knifed and blocked the road. Van Reenen pass remained closed and was only opened on Wednesday afternoon when the N3 Toll Concession were happy that the pass was safe for heavy vehicles.

A few points of concern during this operation cropped up and will be discussed in the upcoming August Hamnet Bulletin. It will be difficult to point out all the operators who rendered valuable time in passing and relaying messages but special thanks to Martin, ZS6MSG, Ian, ZS5IE and Ken, ZS2OC.

A good exercise – out of the blue, and a good one for me personally as I was on a working holiday and away from my normal support data which was not immediately at my finger tips!

Reporting for Hamnet, this is Francois Botha – ZS6BUU.