A wave of destructive hurricanes that struck the mainland U.S. and Puerto Rico revealed just how critical communication is during a natural disaster. When electricity and cellular networks go down, there's one place you might still be able to turn for key –information your smartphone.
Thanks to innovations in smartphone applications and communication technology, the phone was a lifeline for many during the most recent catastrophes. Smartphone applications can cache key material for offline use, while other apps can keep you connected even during a network outage.
When it comes to such disasters, technology has truly changed how people survive and how responders do their work. So keep your smartphone close and charged up when that next storm hits, as it could be essential to survival. [Read related story: Disaster Recovery Tips for Small Businesses]
According to Jonathan McNamara, communications director of the American Red Cross, there are many apps that you ought to have on your phone in advance of any emergency. Many have played a critical role in recent disasters.
The American Red Cross apps are a key resource that individuals should be sure they have on their devices in advance of a disaster (remember, the loss of cellular connectivity can occur). There are many specialized applications for different situations, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfire. You can get these and more for iPhone or Android.
The use of technology has also transformed the way the Red Cross operates.
"To say technology has become integral to everything we do is an understatement," McNamara said. "Not only in terms of our public efforts, but we also have a number of great safety apps that people have used when storms hit. They give information about where our vehicles are, where our shelters are, and it's because connectivity is built into everything we do with our operations."
Another app that was helpful during Irene, Harvey and Maria was FireChat (iPhone and Android). It relies on a peer-to-peer messaging network between devices. As more people use it, that widens the net of those who can connect. It's also worth using a service to track loved ones' locations, such as Apple's Find My Friends or Google's Trusted Contacts.
Plan on keeping additional batteries and charging kits around. They are part of what McNamara says the Red Cross recommends as a digital disaster kit.
"An extra cell phone charger, extra battery so you can share phones and smart devices, a power strip, and other essentials can be critical. Outlets become a premium in disasters," he said.
Also recommended is a flash drive with important documents, contact information, details about family doctors and other essential contacts.
Finally, here are some of the recommended resources to ensure that you're ready for when disaster strikes.
- FEMA app: The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers weather alerts and a list of local shelters in an emergency. You can also upload photos and share disaster information directly with responders.
- Safe and Well: This is a website run by the American Red Cross that allows individuals to check in as "safe" in an emergency. It's used for both natural and human-caused emergencies, and can allay the fears of loved ones.
- Weather apps: McNamara recommended that those in the path of a disaster have a reliable weather application on their phone to monitor conditions. Services such as The Weather Channel, Weather Underground and AccuWeather do a good job of keeping you informed of current and upcoming conditions.