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Essential Technology to Have During Natural Disasters

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

spinner image A man in a black hooded coat holds up his smartphone in front of a building destroyed by a storm
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Given the frequency and intensity of natural disasters these days, chances are it’s a case of when — not if — extreme weather will affect your life.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says emergency preparedness is critical to help protect your family, your home and your belongings from a myriad of threats, such as wildfires, drought, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes.

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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.

Technology can play an essential role in emergency preparedness with helpful apps and gadgets to get you through a natural disaster.

Free apps to download

Keep in mind that during an extreme weather event, you may not have Wi-Fi or cellular service to download apps to your iPhone or Android device. It's a good idea to download them in advance — and familiarize yourself with them before an event occurs — so they’ll be ready to use when you need them.

  • The American Red Cross offers numerous apps, including First Aid and Pet First Aid as well as a general Emergency app that lets you customize 40 different weather alerts like Earthquake, Hurricane and Tornado, along with a shelter finder, checklists, educational quizzes and advice on what to do in a given emergency. Example: how to handle food and water during a power outage.

    The Red Cross also offers add-ons for smart speakers and smart displays that let you access info with your voice (Amazon calls these add-ons “Skills”). 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.
  • 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.

    FEMA also recommends enabling Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) on your mobile phone, which are short emergency messages from authorized federal, state, local, tribal and territorial public alerting authorities (broadcast from cell towers in a targeted area). FEMA suggests also following your local National Weather Service office on social media.

    Note the FEMA app website reports that as of July 21, 2023, FEMA’s weather watches and advisories may not be deliverable due to changes in the weather alerting data sources it uses. The site notes that severe and life-threatening weather and local hazard warnings will still be delivered.
  • 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. For iPhone users who prefer Apple Maps, the app will also offer an offline feature in fall 2023 with the launch of iOS 17.

Consider satellite phone features 

A communications device that relies totally on satellite service rather than cellphone towers on land that can be damaged during disasters is an expensive investment. Satellite phones start at more than $500 and run into the thousands. 

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Two-way satellite text messengers start at $300. Devices, such as the Motorola Defy Satellite Link and Zoleo Satellite Communicator, that can connect your smartphone to satellite service through each company's app start at $150. 

And all of these devices need monthly subscriptions to connect to the satellites. 

New iPhones — the iPhone 14 and its Plus, Pro and Pro Max models available now as well as the 15 series that will be out in the fall — have an emergency SOS via satellite feature that allows you to communicate by text message with emergency responders. The service, not available on older iPhones, is free for two years after the phone is activated; the least expensive iPhone 14 starts at $799. 

Android smartphones with the same satellite SOS capability are expected to be available soon. Earlier this year, Android giant Samsung plus manufacturers including Motorola and Qualcomm announced that they would bring out satellite SOS phones without mentioning the prices, but the hardware is not for sale yet. 

Satellite SOS service isn’t a failsafe. Apple points out that a message with an unobstructed satellite connection can take 15 seconds to send and more than a minute if trees with even a light cover of leaves obstruct your view of the sky. In a dense forest, you might not be able to connect at all.

Pro tip: Don’t forget that you can call 911 from your mobile phone using cell service 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 but make sure you have the correct cable for the car in advance.

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

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A portable battery booster, also called a power bank, is a smart idea when you need to be away from an electrical 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.

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.

The Duracell 800 Watt High Power Inverter ($129.99), which can jump-start your car’s dead battery., is also helpful in an emergency Plus it houses two electrical 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 inverters.

Make sure your home is protected

Storm-related power outages can significantly increase the chance for a house fire or carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, says Stephanie Berzinski, fire safety educator at Kidde, a manufacturer of fire safety products named after founder Walter Kidde, a pioneer in early smoke detection and suppression. “At home, be sure to have working battery-operated carbon monoxide and smoke alarms as well as fire extinguishers before a storm strikes,” Berzinski says.

Portable generators, candles and downed power lines all pose a risk. The Consumer Product Safety Commission says deaths involving portable generators have been on the rise since 1999, when they became widely available to consumers. The majority of these occur as a result of using a generator inside a home or attached garage.

Kidde’s Smoke + Carbon Monoxide Alarm + Indoor Air Quality Monitor ($128.99) is billed as the first all-in-one smart home safety device to integrate smoke and CO detection with indoor air quality monitoring, to detect multiple airborne threats to home health and safety. The Wi-Fi-enabled and smart speaker-supported device includes a 10-year lithium backup battery in the event of a power outage.

Battery-based generators, such as a line from Anker portable battery company, often have 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.

Branded as PowerHouse products, they’re 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 a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, and small appliances. The Anker PowerHouse 521 ($219.99) offers two three-prong electrical outlets, a car socket and multiple USB ports. EcoFlow, Jackery, Shell and Bluetti offer similar products.

And 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 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.

This story, originally published Feb. 7, 2022, was updated to reflect developments in technology associated with disaster preparedness.

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