WILMINGTON, N.C. - When Hurricane Fran cut off Wilmington from the outside world for 72 hours in 1996, it was amateur radio operators who restored the link.
During Hurricane Katrina, hams - some of them far from the Gulf Coast - relayed critical messages for hospitals and police after telephone and radio systems failed.
But some worry that local zoning regulations and the restrictive covenants of some communities not only imperil their hobby but also could mean communities across North Carolina won't be ready if there is a major hurricane, manmade disaster or terrorism.
"During a storm, we're at the emergency operators center, we're at the shelters and we're at the hospitals," said Bill Morine, a financial planner from Wilmington who is a spokesman for the 21,000 hams across North Carolina. "Where we're not, is in the neighborhoods."
The reason for that, he and other hams said, is cable television. With the rise of cable TV in the 1970s, some local governments and nearly all communities with homeowners' agreements banned exterior antennas and large satellite dishes. That has pushed the hobby, which is shared by more than 740,000 Americans, somewhat underground.
For those who live in old Wilmington neighborhoods that don't have covenants, there is little to worry about.
But those amateur radio operators who live in newer neighborhoods or other communities take chances. Some string wire antennas illegally. Others run coils of wire around their attics, getting interference and poor reception.
It puts hams in a bind. Practitioners of the century-old hobby have a reputation for professionalism and cooperation with the government. Hams hold federal licenses and have participated in emergency communications programs with federal and state governments since World War II.
But for years, the worries of their neighbors were the sight of an ugly antenna next door and the interference it might cause on their TVs and radios.
Amateur radio operators know what the rules are when they buy a home, said Ham Hicks, a real estate broker and former Wilmington mayor.
"It's an issue of education for the legal community and the real estate community," said Hicks, who has had a ham radio license for more than 30 years. "We don't need to fight, we need to educate."
Now, hams are mounting a public campaign as well as a lobbying effort in state capitals and in Congress.
They want neighbors to know that the same revolution in miniature electronics that has shrunk their cell phones has made amateur radio equipment smaller and less obtrusive. Even they oppose eyesore antennas, Morine said.
"We're talking about stringing up horizontal wires that nobody can see from the street," he said.
They want developers to know they can rewrite their covenants to allow amateur radio antennas and still protect property values.
And, they want lawmakers to step in to make local planning rules consistent statewide.
Paul Magnabosco of Wilmington is an electrical engineer, ham radio operator and real estate investor.
He's building a development in Topsail Beach. The homes there will be covered by a covenant, but that agreement will allow tasteful and reasonable antennas.
"I wrote the covenant that way," he said. "I believe amateur radio can add value to a community."
Amateurs are trying to get the attention of a new committee in the N.C. General Assembly that is studying the state's emergency preparedness plans. The committee had its first meeting last month.
But Morine said the group would like North Carolina to join 21 other states, including some Gulf states, that changed their laws after Katrina that make it easier for hams to get city planning approval for antennas.
The group also backs HR 3876, a bill pending in Congress that would go further than the state proposal by requiring that private land covenants be no more restrictive than state and local land-use rules. The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C.
During a hurricane some years ago, ham operator Bill Wetherill was sending weather reports from his Wilmington home to the National Weather Service. His observations were used to provide the detail radar couldn't get.
But it began to get dark. Since the sun affects radio broadcasting, he needed to switch over to another set of frequencies to continue communicating.
But he couldn't.
"If I had had a longer antenna, I could have stayed on their air," he said.
Ham Stories >