Forecasters issued a tropical storm for parts of the Florida Keys on Monday, August 24, as Tropical Storm Laura moved north-northwest in the Caribbean.
This story originally published on August 4.
When disaster looms, having the right tech tools can help you get critical information, keep in touch with rescue workers and loved ones – maybe even save your life.
“I can’t imagine going through a giant storm without my gadgets,” says Kathy Zucker, author and founder of the Metro Moms Network.
Zucker lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, and rode out a pair of hurricanes, Irene and Sandy, at home with her husband and young children. “Because I had my smartphone and laptop, and a giant, massive backup battery/power supply to keep them powered up, I never lost touch with the outside world during the entire storm. That was everything.”
When a hurricane loomed just off the coast of North Carolina, novelist Christina Wood was busy charging up gadgets as she boarded up windows at her Wilmington area condo. “The most important tech gadgets in this (disaster situation) are batteries! The bigger, the better.” Wood wrote to me over email. “We might be without power for a long time. A lot of locals have generators. But if you don’t, power bricks are like gold!”
With the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season underway, and the Gulf Coast bracing for two big storms to make landfall, it’s not too late to make sure your disaster preparedness tech is charged up and ready to go.
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Start with your smartphone
Your smartphone can be your lifeline – but not if the battery dies. Keep it plugged in and charging as long as you have power, “but the minute the storm gets here, unplug everything,” Wood warns. “Lightning is dangerous. I know someone who was hit by lightning through his keyboard!”
Be sure to have more than one back-battery charger topped-off too. I keep a handful of them including the Mophie Charge Stream Pad+ ($30) wireless power station, and the Outxe Savage (starting at $60), which has a small solar panel that comes in really handy when there’s no other available power source. In addition to those two, I keep the Cobra Marine JumPack XL H2O ($150) in my car at all times. It’s a handheld gadget that can jump-start V8 gas and diesel engines multiple times, has two USB ports to power up your smartphone, and a built-in flashlight with SOS and strobe modes.
At least twice a year, I take out all of my backup batteries and charge them up, too, to make sure they’re nearly full if/when disaster strikes. If your phone is breathing its last breath remember that a laptop can charge it up too, as long as you have the right charging cables on hand. I use a MacBook Pro that needs an additional dongle to charge up my iPhone – so I stashed an extra one, along with an extra charging cable – in a Ziploc in my emergency pack.
While you want to make sure your smartphone battery lasts as long as possible – by turning down the screen brightness, muting unnecessary apps, and turning on Low Power mode – there are a few apps that you’ll want on hand, no matter what.
For weather-related emergencies, it’s tough to beat the newly redesigned Weather Channel app (free, iOS, Android). The app has always provided real-time weather tracking, alerts, and updates on severe weather. Now, the new-and-improved version uses IBM AI to deliver the most relevant alerts and forecasts, right into the palm of your hand.
“It cuts through the clutter,” says Sheri Bachstein, global head of consumer business for The Weather Company. “When you’re trying to survive, you can’t be looking for information every few seconds all over the place. Our new app highlights major changes in weather and notifies you preemptively with a push alert. We can push targeted and geofenced messages to users to provide more specific information when and where they need it most.”
An app called Zello (free, iOS, Android) turns your smartphone into a sort of hybrid walkie-talkie/police scanner. As long as you have a cellular network or WiFi connection, you can use Zello like a two-way radio to keep in contact with a pre-set group of people, or rescue workers via a specific channel. I listened in to a channel called “Hurricane Florence Information Channel” for about an hour, and heard people asking for help evacuating, finding fresh water, and checking-in on elderly relatives.
Zello CEO Bill Moore had previously told me that what really stood out for people during past hurricanes was how critical it is to have two-way conversations at the push of a button, jumping in and out of channels whenever you want, with an app that uses little battery.
“It might use 10% more than normal; it’s a pretty low draw,” Moore said. “We put a lot of effort into battery use.” That’s great news since weather emergencies can lead to total blackouts that last days. “Set it up and add the people you need to be in contact with before an emergency,” he says.
Keep the FEMA app (free, iOS, Android) handy, too. It’s a great resource before the storm hits, with guides on how to prepare emergency kits and tips to ready yourself for any hardships a bad bout of weather might bring.
GasBuddy (free, iOS, Android) will lead you to the closest, cheapest gas, and Airbnb is great for finding “Open Homes” where you can stay for free.
Your smartphone might be your most important gadget, but it doesn’t have to be the only one that helps you weather the storm. There are a few other things I keep handy for all kinds of emergencies, like the Eton FRX3 Weather Alert Radio ($50), which is currently sold out on its own website but available on Amazon for about $60. It pulls in AM and FM signals, has a built-in LED flashlight and solar panel, and if you don’t have sunlight you can recharge it just by turning the built-in hand crank. As an added bonus, a USB port on the side can recharge your other gadgets, too.
Zucker said she always looks for gadgets that multitask. “I am obsessed with the UCO Pika Lantern ($25). It’s tiny, converts from flashlight to lantern mode, and you have a USB port to charge up your other gadgets.”
When night falls and power is nowhere to be found, LuminAID’s emergency lanterns (starting at $25) are a light in the darkness. They have built-in solar panels to recharge from sunlight and can last for up to 24 hours on a full charge. They’re inflatable for easy storage and you can stick them just about anywhere.
Both of these devices can use the sun for electricity, but if you want to take your solar game to the next level snag one of Goal Zero Venture 30 Power Bank with Nomad 7 Solar Panel (starting at $180). These are portable solar panels that feed into a backup battery big enough to recharge your phone up to three times. Just lay it in the sun and never worry about a dead phone.
And don’t forget, camping and survival gadgets like the BioLite CampStove 2 ($130), which turns the heat from a small fire into electricity, and the water-purifying LifeStraw ($20) can be a real lifesaver in a weather emergency, too.
Riding out a natural disaster when you have the option to evacuate is rarely a good idea, but if you find yourself stuck between a rock and a hurricane, you’ll have a better shot at making it through unscathed with a few of these handy tech tools.
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