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Essential Technology to Have During Natural Disasters

Free apps and affordable gadgets can help before and after extreme weather

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Given the increase in frequency and intensity of natural disasters these days, chances are it’s a case of when — not if — extreme weather will affect your life.

With the increase in threats such as wildfires, drought, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says emergency preparedness is critical to help protect your family, your home and your belongings.

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“We encourage everyone to be prepared year-round for any disaster, hazard or climate event,” says Jaclyn Rothenberg, FEMA’s director of public affairs. “Know what disasters and hazards could affect your area, how to get emergency alerts and where to go if you and your family need to evacuate.” Rothenberg says this requires having an evacuation plan and practicing it often.

Tech can play an essential role in emergency preparedness. Here are some of the many helpful apps and gadgets available to help you get through natural disasters.

Free apps to download

Download these free apps to your iPhone or Android device so they’ll be ready to use during a severe weather incident. Keep in mind that you may not have Wi-Fi or cellular service to download these apps when you need them.

• The American Red Cross offers numerous apps, including First Aid and Pet First Aid apps, a general Emergency app with a shelter finder, and Earthquake, Hurricane and Tornado apps tied to specific types of disasters. Each includes checklists, educational quizzes, emergency notifications and advice on what to do in a given emergency, such as how to handle food and water during a power outage.

The Red Cross also offers add-ons for smart speakers that let you access info with your voice. For example, you could say, “Alexa, enable hurricane alerts by the American Red Cross” on an Amazon Echo device or “Hey, Google, talk to Red Cross blood donation” on a Google Nest speaker.

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• The FEMA app lets you toggle between English and Spanish to access emergency safety tips for more than 20 types of disasters. It offers a customizable emergency kit checklist and an emergency family plan. You can also receive real-time alerts from the National Weather Service for up to five locations nationwide; share real-time notifications with loved ones via text, email and social media; and locate open emergency shelters and disaster recovery centers in your area where you can talk in person to a FEMA representative.

“We encourage everyone to be prepared year-round for any disaster, hazard or climate event. Know what disasters and hazards could affect your area, how to get emergency alerts and where to go if you and your family need to evacuate.”

— Jaclyn Rothenberg, Federal Emergency Management Agency

• The Disaster Alert app and website from the Pacific Disaster Center (PDC) in Kihei, Hawaii, offers a real-time map that shows active or impending incidents deemed “potentially hazardous to people, property or assets” according to the PDC DisasterAWARE platform. These include drought, earthquakes, extreme temperature, floods, forest fires, severe storms, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. DisasterAWARE offers a robust and reliable early warning system, multi-hazard monitoring and tools to aid in decision-making.

• Google Maps’ offline feature lets you select an area, even an entire city, to download and view on your smartphone if cell service or Wi-Fi is offline.

Pro tip: Don’t forget that you can call 911 from your mobile phone even if you don’t have an active mobile plan. Keep an old, deactivated phone in your emergency kit or your vehicle’s glove compartment, but make sure it’s charged. If it’s not, use your car charger. Just make sure you have the correct cable in the car.

If you have power and Wi-Fi but no cellular service, some apps let you make video and audio calls for help, including Facebook MesesengerGoogle DuoTextNow and WhatsApp Messenger.

Low- and high-tech gadgets to have on hand

Your smartphone can be your lifeline during a major weather incident, so make sure it has an Ingress Protection (IP) rating of at least 68, which means the phone can withstand dust, dirt and sand, and can be submerged in water for up to 30 minutes. If your phone isn’t waterproof, consider putting a couple of thick plastic ziplock bags in your emergency kit to protect it.

A portable battery booster, also called a power bank, is a smart idea when you need to be away from an AC outlet for a while or if the power goes out in your area. Make sure these backup battery packs are charged when you need them. They can hold a charge for a couple of months, so top them off every so often.

Prices start at about $30 for a brand-name battery. Keep in mind that the higher the milliamp hours (mAh), the more times the battery can charge a smartphone. Some have more than one USB port to plug into in case you want to juice up two phones simultaneously, or a phone plus a tablet or wireless earbuds.

You can use your car’s USB port or 12-volt port to charge your devices during a power outage. But unplug them whenever you turn the car off so they won’t drain the vehicle’s battery.

Anker, a portable battery company, has a line of Power Station–branded batteries and accessories. They are essentially small power generators, often with emergency lighting and optional solar-powered attachments, that can charge up or run virtually any device during an emergency — or when you’re off the grid, such as when camping or RVing. They are also ideal if you live in an apartment, where a gas generator is not an option, and can power lights, laptops, medical equipment, such as CPAP machines, and small appliances. The Anker 521 Portable Power Station ($229.99) offers two three-prong AC outlets, a car socket and multiple USB ports. CTECHi, Jackery, Shell and ZeroKor offer similar products.

Also helpful in an emergency is the Duracell 800 Watt High Power Inverter ($139.99), which can jump-start your car’s dead battery. Plus it houses two AC outlets and one USB port to convert your car’s battery current into electricity that your devices can use. Another Duracell model can add air to your tires, too. Bestek, Maxpart, Potek and Ysolx make similar products.

Finally, consider a hand-crank and solar-powered radio, like the Etón FRX3+ Multi-Powered Weather Alert Radio ($59.99), which features an AM/FM digital radio, all seven National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Environment Canada weather bands, and a function that broadcasts emergency weather alerts. The hand turbine and small solar panel keep it charged during emergencies; it also takes batteries. The FRX3+ has a USB port to charge a smartphone, an LED flashlight, an emergency red LED flashing beacon, an alarm clock, a headphone jack and more. Esky, FosPower, Kayinuo and Puiuisoul have similar products.