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It was five years ago on June 29, 2012, that many of us in West Virginia added the word derecho to our vocabularies. We didn’t know how to pronounce it, much less know what it was. But we know now.

The powerful straight-line winds that approached hurricane strength plowed through the Ohio Valley and the Mid-Atlantic states, causing widespread damage and death. Almost 700,000 households in West Virginia were without electricity for several days.

For many, it meant a loss of cellphone service, internet and cable. It reminded us just how vulnerable we are to a massive loss of power and communications.

We simply don’t know what natural or man-made disaster may strike next. It could be another massive storm, a tornado, or, God forbid, a failure of the power grid.

At times like these, it is important to be able to communicate with the outside world and that is where ham radio operators are helpful.

Last weekend, the Stonewall Jackson Amateur Radio Association held its annual Field Day in Clarksburg, and while it’s fun for enthusiasts to be able to talk with people all over the world, their skills could some day be vitally important.

“It’s like a fire drill,” said Tim Yoos, Field Day chairman for the Stonewall Jackson Amateur Radio Association. “We run on generators, set up antennas and make contacts all around the United States and all around the world.

“It’s a dry run if things hit the fan,” Yoos said. “Cellphones go down, radio goes down, internet goes down. We set up antennas and radios and can use this as a form of communication to pass information back and forth.”

West Virginia has seen its share of disasters in recent years and when they happen, communication during such emergencies is essential. And while ham radio is an interesting hobby, it can also be the lifeline that it’s been for decades.

“It’s really the same. When all else fails, floods, that kind of thing, cellphones get knocked out or landline phones get knocked out, that’s all you have” said Rick Vincent, who as been a ham radio enthusiast since 1985.

We often take for granted being able to communicate with our smartphones or our computers. And we can feel pretty helpless when they go out.

While ham radio has become much more technically sophisticated, it remains an old medium. But it is still very effective and can be a lifesaver when more modern equipment fails.

We hope that ham operators will not be needed, but it’s good to know that they’re there if disaster strikes.

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