With a regular torrent of severe weather events, ranging from hurricanes to fires, regularly hitting all parts of the United States, you may be interested in the best ways to prepare to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. Disaster recently struck in my neck of the woods with the largest wildfire in California history. In the months since, the United States has seen record-setting hurricanes, deadly tornadoes, and a wide range of emergencies to unsuspecting households.
You shouldn’t sit around worried all day about an unpredictable emergency, but you can take a few basic steps to prepare. Follow along to learn how to emergency-proof your home, keep communication alive when the power’s out, and how you can use your phone for a wide range of uses during an emergency. Follow government evacuation orders in any case, but if a hurricane is on the way, hunker down with these tips to stay as safe, comfortable, and in touch as possible.
Prepare a home disaster kit
A home disaster kit should have a range of useful items including an ample supply of bottled water, non-perishable foods, flashlights, spare batteries, and perhaps warm clothing if your climate calls for it. But beyond those basics, should you keep any tech tools at home to help in an emergency? Here are a few of the most helpful gadgets to have around the house as well.
Solar/Crank radio. In my garage, we keep a radio that works without batteries or an external power source. This radio works with a hand crank or attached solar panels, is compact and portable, and even has a built-in flashlight. It picks up AM and FM radio as well as NOAA weather broadcasts. And, if you want, it works with AAA batteries or a USB charger.
In any major emergency, you can usually get emergency information on local radio. During the Thomas Fire, one station here went to 24/7 alerts and fire reporting. Even when the power was out, the radio station kept sharing important information related to the fire, later mudslides and flooding, and other vital emergency details.
Handheld scanner radio. For a couple hundred dollars, you can get a battery or outlet powered portable radio. Why would you want this kind of radio when you already have the AM/FM/weather radio mentioned above? This radio scans different channels. With a handheld scanner, you can listen to police, fire, and other emergency services. It would be illegal for you to transmit on these channels, but scanners are just fine.
Emergency scanners give you the most up-to-date information as it’s happening. While you may have to pay close attention to understand everything going on, knowing where a flood is blocking a road could help you avoid a deadly situation. Hearing where firefighters and police are actively working tells you where to avoid. Staying one step ahead can put you at ease and improve your own family safety.
Your smartphone. The same apps you use to show off what you’re having for dinner can be a lifeline in a hurricane or other disaster. When the massive Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, phone lines and power lines were submerged around the city, but cellular service remained active for the most part. Using apps like Twitter and Facebook, stranded individuals and families were able to reach out and get help from otherwise inundated emergency responders.
Your phone also has a flashlight, the ability to make 911 and other phone calls regardless of location, and many other useful features during an emergency. If you don’t already have one, keeping a power bank charged and ready to go as a backup will keep that phone powered up much longer than the internal battery alone. I’m a big fan of Anker power banks, but there are many good brands that offer what you should need for your phone.
Living on the Cheap founder Teresa Mears shared that after a recent South Florida hurricane, she found her phone charged very slowly from the car charger if the car wasn’t running. A high-speed power bank will get you up and running much faster.
Propane or charcoal grill and supplies. If the power’s out, your microwave, range, and other home cooking appliances may be down for the count as well. If you have a charcoal or propane grill, you can keep on cooking even without working utilities. Just be sure to NEVER use them indoors and always use them in well-ventilated areas to prevent asphyxiation. A backup propane tank or a few bags of charcoal should be plenty to help you make it through a few days.
Extra gas. Fans of apocalyptic movies know that running out of gas is a major concern after a zombie invasion, alien attack, or natural disaster. Keeping a gas can handy with at least a gallon or two just in case you need to refuel and the gas station’s power is out too.
Smartphone apps for emergencies and disasters
During any type of disaster, phone and internet service may not be readily available. Keeping a few communication apps handy in addition to your regular landline and cellular service might keep you connected. It’s possible you will only have internet service at some point, and some apps are very useful for communications with neighbors and emergency responders.
During the Thomas Fire, I found Twitter and Nextdoor to be my best lines of communication and information. There was a point where I had no phone service but the internet service on my phone was still running, so even though text messages were not going through, I still had information coming into my phone with up-to-the-minute detail.
Flashlight. Most new smartphones have a flashlight feature that works with no app required. However, some models and most older phones require an app to turn the camera flash into a flashlight. Be familiar with this feature on your own phone so you can turn it on and off in a hurry if needed.
Camera. Insurance may want proof of damage to your home, vehicles, and property. It may be wise to take some photos during a disaster and on the way out to document what happened and when.
Nextdoor. This app is kind of like Facebook for neighborhoods. Only verified neighbors who live in your neighborhood and city can see your profile. When I was worried that my block was on fire, it was someone on Nextdoor that confirmed there was a fire on my block and which homes were impacted. Neighbors on this app coordinated places to stay, meals, clothing, and other needs for those who had long evacuations and lost their homes.
Twitter. During the fire, a local neighbor with the username @VCscanner had more up-to-date information than the news. Follow relevant hashtags, accounts, and trending topics here to get instant information when available. Facebook is another good social network for disaster news, but the instant and short-updates of Twitter make it more useful in an emergency.
FEMA Mobile App. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, has a mobile app that includes alerts, disaster resources, and other useful information. With real-time alerts from FEMA and the National Weather Service, you may want to download this app far ahead of time just in case you need it.
Local government apps. My county offers text alerts as a free emergency service, but some cities and counties have full Android and iOS apps that may be useful for emergency communications. Check out your city and county website (0r both) to find out what resources you have available in your local area.
Keep your go bag on standby
Emergency cash – I’m a big fan of online banking, digital money transfers, and taking your entire financial life online. However, credit cards, debit cards, and online banking don’t do much good when the power’s out. You may need some actual cash money, and when the ATM is down, you’ll be stuck if you don’t have at least a few bucks at home.
Camping supplies – While camping is a fun recreational activity, if you have to leave home and don’t have anywhere else to go, your tent, sleeping bags, and other camping gear might come in handy. To make it a few days, you might also want a camping stove and fuel, space blankets, lighters or matches, and plenty of water.
Water purification – Speaking of water, don’t think that just because it’s raining cats and dogs that you’ll have access to clean drinking water during a storm. In the Thomas Fire, hydrants and taps went dry due to demand! Iodine tablets or a pump water filter keeps you hydrated with potable water. You can pick up those supplies at REI or any similar outdoor store, or Amazon of course. For a portable option, LifeStraw removes bacteria, parasites, and other nasty bugs from water before they make you sick.
Key to emergency success: always plan ahead
Back in my Boy Scout days, I earned Emergency Prepared Merit Badge and learned that the best way to respond to a disaster is to prepare in advance. Whether you live in an area prone to earthquakes, fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, or any other disaster, you never know when disaster will strike. Getting ready in advance, keeping home and portable emergency supplies on standby, and staying appraised of local conditions will keep you safe in the most critical hours. Now stop reading and start preparing. Then you can rest easy that no matter what happens, you’re ready for it.
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