While most Orange County residents kept track of Hurricane Georges on television, Julio Ortiz reached out and touched someone--several someones, in fact.
The La Habra resident is a licensed ham-radio operator--a hobby he embraced after losing his eyesight nearly eight years ago. In the past few weeks he has helped put dozens of hurricane victims in touch with loved ones in California, Texas and New Mexico.
When Georges hit Puerto Rico earlier this month, Ortiz, who is bilingual and has family in the commonwealth, quickly scanned the airwaves.
“The immediate necessity was for people in the island to notify loved ones here in the U.S. that they were OK,” Ortiz, 57, said.
One woman needed to reach family in San Diego. A ham-radio operator in Puerto Rico relayed the message to Ortiz, who called the family.
“Everybody was extremely grateful,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz was grateful himself Wednesday when he finally connected with his 83-year-old mother in Puerto Rico.
“She is doing fine,” he said.
Ortiz became blind on Christmas Eve 1990. He has macular degeneration, which affects central vision. He has lost nearly all sight in his left eye and can make out silhouettes with his right.
The disease is the most common form of blindness for students at the Braille Institute in Anaheim, where Ortiz studied and volunteers, said Mary Johnson, volunteer coordinator for the institute’s Orange County office.
“He is an outstanding individual,” Johnson said of Ortiz, “a role model.”
Johnson said those who lose their sight need to regain a sense of independence; learning a skill is paramount to the process.
Shortly after Ortiz lost his sight, he left his job as general manager at a department store. For seven years he struggled with his loss, he said.
“I didn’t want to do anything. I was really in a bad situation,” he said.
In 1997, he enrolled at the Braille Institute and discovered ham radio.
“Ironically, it was something I’d wanted to do since I was kid, but I was always too busy,” he said.
In six months, he had earned his extra-class license, the highest for a ham operator. He has helped in many disasters, some across the globe, including the July tsunami that killed thousands in Papua New Guinea.
A complex network of ham-radio operators around the world serves as a vital communication lifeline during disasters, Ortiz said. When telephones and power lines are down, ham-radio operators, most of whom have emergency generators, are often the only link between disaster victims and emergency services or relatives.
Blindness has made him more aware of his other senses, Ortiz said. He’s also learned that “a lot of the things you did, you didn’t have to see them.”
Ortiz spends nearly four hours a day cruising the airwaves and said he doesn’t mind the phone bills he accumulates calling disaster victims’ families to relay messages.
“You are not thinking about long-distance calls,” he said. “You are thinking about helping people.”