HAM Radio 101

Hams You Should Know: Bharathi Prasad, VU2RBI, the Operator Who Took on the Indian Ocean Tsunami to Save Lives

In 2004, Bharathi Prasad, VU2RBI, packed her bags to lead the Andaman Islands DXpedition that she had darn near begged Indian government officials to allow her and a small team to go on for the past 17 years.

Her goal? To break her own record set in 1987 of 15,500 contacts made from Port Blair, the capital city of the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, 900 miles east of mainland India. But fate is a fickle thing, and Prasad would instead find herself caught in the midst of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, whose torrential waves tore apart the coastlines of more than 12 countries, killing more than 225,000 people. Luckily, Prasad’s quick wits, fast response time, and sheer determination would save countless more as she rose to the role of unsuspecting heroine in the aftermath of this most unfortunate circumstance.

Upon her arrival, she committed herself to spending all but three hours of every night and day on the air, and it was her wakefulness that soon proved invaluable as she completed more than 1,000 contacts per day from room 501 of her Port Blair hotel room. Thus, she was ready at 6:29 am on the morning of December 26, 2004 when books flew and tables turned with the force of an estimated nine-plus magnitude earthquake, or more accurately, “seaquake” that hit Port Blair hard enough to shift its geographical location—although the exact distance has raised some dispute. 

Acting quickly, Prasad yelled “Tremors” into her microphone just before the radio went dead, effectively alerting a global network of hams to the natural disaster before sprinting off to verbally sound an alarm to fellow guests and staff. Devastation from the quake was great, and the power supply for the archipelago of 500 islands went down, leaving islanders with no means to communicate with the mainland—save for ham radio—that Prasad, initially lured by a challenge and now faced with a much greater one, was willing, able, and ready to employ.

Prasad made quick time setting up a hasty shack on the hotel lawn with a donated generator and much determination to get Port Blair back in contact with relief efforts and, of course, loved ones. In an article written for the Washington Post, Prasad stated, “I contacted Indian hams in other states and told them about what had happened. The whole world of radio hams was looking for us because they had not heard from us after the tremors. But I also knew this was going to be a big disaster. I immediately abandoned my expedition and told all radio operators to stop disturbing me. I was only on emergency communication from then on.”

Despite Prasad’s efforts, news was slow to reach others from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and even slower to hit mainstream news outlets or to procure aid. Too slow, in fact, for our ham heroine. Nonplussed with the minimal response, Prasad continued to broadcast the plight of the islands to anyone able to hear her on the air, stressing that there was no power, water, or phone lines. And when a less than satisfactory response continued, she made her way to the District Commissioner’s office. He, of course, queried, “What is a ham?” And upon explanation, allowed Prasad to use his office as a shack along with a second location on Car Nicobar—the hardest hit island.

For a short but crucial time in the storm’s aftermath, Prasad and her small team served as the only mode of communication between those on the islands (including tourists—some from the United States) and their loved ones, as well as providing the link between government officials and relief efforts on the mainland. Prasad also independently arranged for volunteer doctors to be sent from other Indian states to help those affected on the islands.

Ravi Singh, the Hotel Manager in Port Blair, extolled her action-oriented response saying, “I marvel at the courage that she has shown.” Hams and islanders alike dubbed her most affectionately “Teresa of the Bay of Bengal,” likening her acts of goodwill to those of religious celebrant Mother Teresa.

However, Prasad’s part in the storm’s aftermath did meet with the slightest bit of opposition from her concerned husband who called to request her immediate return home from the island. Prasad explained his dilemma: “He reminded me that I have two children to look after back home,” she said, laughing. “I told him that as a ham radio operator I have a duty in times of disaster.” A duty fulfilled most acutely in a time of true need with true heroism shown.

Among many accomplishments, Prasad has served as the Chief Coordinator of the National Institute of Amateur Radio (NAIR) and is the recipient of several awards including the Rastrapathi (President) Award for meritorious Amateur Radio service with the Bharat Scouts and Guides, Ambassador on the Air from India in 1987, the JARL Award, the JRRL Award from Japan, DARC Award from Germany, and the RSGB Award from the United Kingdom. She even met the Queen of England and royal family while speaking at the Commonwealth Day Observance in London in 2010.

Get Involved

Feeling inspired by the acts of Teresa of the Bay of Bengal? Get ready to do some good of your own by joining ham-operated volunteer organizations that help out when natural disasters strike like the Hurricane Watch Net or Skywarn that uses storm spotters who work with the National Weather Service to obtain critical weather information that saves lives. Or plan on hitting up Field Day in 2023 to put your emergency communications skills to the test with hands-on learning and emergency preparedness training in the field.

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