Tech tips to help with hurricanes, California wildfires and other natural disasters
We're well into hurricane season, with the U.S. already having been battered by Henri in the Northeast and more recently, Ida on the Gulf Coast – all in the span of a week.
And if you live in an area prone to major storms and floods or where the power goes out if the wind blows any harder than 5 mph, it's worth making sure you're properly prepared.
The same goes for wildfires in the western U.S. And tech can help with that.
Earlier this summer, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced the official launch of its National Risk Index, a free online resource designed to provide “a clear, visual guide to natural hazard risks throughout the United States.”
FEMA says its goal is to identify and help communities most at risk to severe weather events, such as flooding, wildfire, extreme heat, drought and more than a dozen other potentially dangerous threats.
Along with interactive web maps, the National Risk Index “prioritizes resilience efforts by providing an at-a-glance overview of multiple risk factors,” to assist communities in updating emergency operations plans, enhancing hazard mitigation plans, allocating resources and more.
Whether it's raging forest fires in California and parts of the Northwest or Tropical Storm Fred bringing tornadoes to the Southeast, a just-published report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns the Earth will face even more extreme weather in the coming decades.
► A looming threat: Climate change threatens millions of American homes with flood, fires
“Climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying,” says the U.N. climate change panel, which has dubbed the situation as “code red for humanity.”
In the event of a natural disaster, your survival plan should include your smartphone at the very least. It could be a lifeline during an emergency.
But you’ll want to do a few other things in advance to make sure your phone will work. These include having backup power, a ready-to-go waterproofing solution and a way to call for help – even if there’s no cell service or Wi-Fi connectivity.
Here is some other tech that can help you prepare for a natural disaster:
Important apps and maps
A handful of free emergency preparedness apps can help you in the event of a crisis. Be sure to download them ahead of a severe storm, in case you’re without service.
The Red Cross offers numerous apps, including ones for finding shelter and first aid, as what to do in case of hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires. Each one includes checklists, advice during emergency situations (from performing first aid and CPR to handling food and water during power outages), quizzes, signing up for emergency alerts and more.
If you own a smart speaker, you can also enable Red Cross severe weather warnings, such as saying “Alexa, enable Hurricane Alerts by the American Red Cross” (on an Amazon Echo device) You can also find nearby blood drives or schedule an appointment to give blood. You can also do this on Google Nest speakers or displays by saying, “Hey Google, talk to Red Cross Blood Donation.”
Similarly, the official FEMA App, available for both Apple and Android devices, includes information for all kinds of disasters, including receiving real-time alerts from the National Weather Service and the location of shelters in your area. The app also offers maps of important locations as well as tips on how to formulate your family's emergency plan, what to put in an emergency kit and suggestions for emergency meeting locations.
Another good one: the aptly-named Disaster Alert app and website offers a real-time map that shows active (or impending) incidents, deemed as “potentially hazardous to people, property, or assets” according to the PDC DisasterAWARE platform. This includes hurricanes and tropical storms, tsunamis, floods, earthquakes, volcano eruptions and more.
Speaking of apps, it’s a good idea to take advantage of Google Maps’ offline feature, which lets you select an area (even an entire city) to download and view on your smartphone in the event there’s no cell service or Wi-Fi.
And be sure to keep a digital copy of your COVID-19 vaccination card on your smartphone.
► COVID-19 vaccine cards: How to store it in your Samsung Galaxy, iPhone
Call 911 without a plan
Did you know you can still call 911 from your mobile phone, even if you don’t have an active plan?
Because you don’t need to pay for cell service to call 911, it’s not a bad idea to keep an old and deactivated phone in your emergency kit or vehicle’s glove compartment. Just make sure it’s charged up first and store it with the appropriate charger.
There are a couple of downsides to this plan: A deactivated phone won't send your location to 911, so you will have to give that information to the dispatcher yourself. The person on the other end of the line won't be able to call you back if you get disconnected either.
You can also text 911, perhaps if you’re unable to talk or need to be silent, but you must first be registered for the 911 service with your wireless service provider.
Presuming there is cellular service, people are also encouraged to send text messages and emails and post notifications to social media about their whereabouts and immediate needs, to look up where local shelters are and to check in on vulnerable relatives and friends.
Proactively discuss a contingency plan with loved ones.
Use Wi-Fi for calls
In the event you have power and Wi-Fi but no cellular, there are apps that let you make video and audio calls for help.
Use apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Google Duo, Viber, TextNow and Fring to make free phone calls over Wi-Fi – even if there’s no cell service. All these apps will require you to set up an account ahead of time, which might be as easy as signing into Google Duo with your Gmail address, or Facebook Messenger with your Facebook ID.
Skype is also free to call another Skype user and in the event you need to call a landline or mobile phone, it’s cheap to do so at only a few pennies per call.
Many smartphones are waterproof or water-resistant, which could help during some natural disaster.
If your current smartphone isn’t waterproof, consider a fitted waterproof case for it, or a sealable and reusable solution, such as the Nite Ize RunOff Waterproof Phone Case ($39.99) or Nite Ize RunOff Waterproof Phone Pouch ($34.99).
As a last resort, have some thick Ziploc bags as part of your emergency kit to drop your phone into.
If you’re currently in the market for a new smartphone, consider one that's water-resistant. For example, the latest Apple iPhone 12 and Samsung Galaxy S21 models are both IP68-rated (the "IP" stands for “Ingress Protection”), meaning it could be submerged in fresh water up to 5 feet and for up to 30 minutes, while iPhone SE, iPhone X and earlier are IP67-certified for water resistance up to 3 feet, up to 30 minutes.
Backup power is key
A backup power solution is essential in a weather-related emergency.
After all, even if you have cellular service in your area, you may not have power, or be able to access a working power outlet. And without power, your smartphone is as useless as the box it came in.
Anker’s PowerHouse devices, for example, are portable power generators to charge up or run virtually any device during an emergency (or when off the grid, such as when camping).
They're also ideal for those who live in an apartment where a gas generator is not an option.
They can power everything from lights to laptops as well as small appliances and medical equipment.
With its single AC and DC outlets, USB-A and car outlet, the PowerHouse 200 ($259.99) is your go-to for charging small devices. It offers more than 200 watts of total power, which can charge a MacBook Pro more than five times or a smartphone about a dozen times and can run a mini-fridge for more than four hours.
The PowerHouse II 800 ($699.99), on the other hand, offers more than 500 watts of power, to charge up to 11 devices simultaneously.
It offers two USB-C ports, four USB-A, two AC outlets, two DC outlets and a car socket.
It also includes a LED flashlight, LED display, handle and can be charged up with an optional solar panel, if desired.
Other recommended gear during a severe weather event includes a hand-crank and/or solar radio and a waterproof flashlight.