Preparing for Hurricane Ian? These natural disaster tech tips help you weather the storm.




As Florida braces for Hurricane Ian, which is expected to rapidly strengthen to a "catastrophic" Category 4 storm before it makes landfall, it's a good reminder to prepare for any natural disasters that may hit your community.

Tech can help with that. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency launched 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 of severe weather events, such as flooding, wildfire, extreme heat, drought and more than a dozen other potentially dangerous threats.

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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.

"Climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying," says the U.N. climate change panel, which has dubbed the situation as "code red for humanity."

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Be prepared for the worst

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 for help during a disaster

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."

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FEMA's app is key during disasters

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.

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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.

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Proactively discuss a contingency plan with loved ones

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, look up where local shelters are and check in on vulnerable relatives and friends.

While Apple announced support for satellite connectivity on its new iPhone 14 family, be aware the service hasn't been launched yet.

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Use Wi-Fi for calls

If 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 if you need to call a landline or mobile phone, it's cheap to do so at only a few pennies per call.

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Waterproof devices are a big help

Many smartphones are waterproof or water-resistant, which could help during some natural disasters.

Regardless of which smartphone model you go with, the RunOff Waterproof Phone Case from Nite Ize ($39) protects your phone from the elements while letting you access the touchscreen and cameras, even underwater (up to 3.
Regardless of which smartphone model you go with, the RunOff Waterproof Phone Case from Nite Ize ($39) protects your phone from the elements while letting you access the touchscreen and cameras, even underwater (up to 3.  

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 14, Samsung Galaxy S22 and Google Pixel 6 models are all IP68-rated (the "IP" stands for "Ingress Protection"), meaning they could be submerged in fresh water up to five feet and for up to 30 minutes, while iPhone SE, iPhone X and earlier are IP67-certified for water resistance up to three feet, up to 30 minutes.

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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.

This portable power bank will allow you to charge your devices when the electricity is down.
This portable power bank will allow you to charge your devices when the electricity is down.  

The PowerHouse 545 ($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 and handle and can be charged up with an optional solar panel.

Other recommended gear during a severe weather event includes a hand-crank and/or solar radio and a waterproof flashlight.

"Swiss Army Knife" gadget American Red Cross Etón FRX3+ Multi-Powered Weather Alert Radio ($59.99) houses an AM/FM (digital radio), all seven National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather band stations and an alert function that broadcasts emergency weather alerts.

While it has an internal lithium-ion battery (2600mAh), you can also use the hand crank and small solar panel to keep it charged during emergencies.

The FRX3+ also features a USB port to charge a smartphone, auxiliary input, LED flashlight, emergency red LED flashing beacon, alarm clock, headphone jack and more.

More Hurricane Ian info: 

  • What is storm surge?

  • What is the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind speed scale?

  • The 10 strongest hurricanes

Follow Marc on Twitter for his "Tech Tip of the Day" posts: @marc_saltzman. Email him or subscribe to his Tech It Out podcast. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How to prepare for Hurricane Ian: These tech tips could save your life

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