Using Your Cell Phone During A Hurricane

With Hurricane Florence headed for the Carolina coast and several other systems threatening to spin up in the Atlantic, now is a good time to take a look at some of the ways your cell phone should factor into your emergency preparedness plan.

Weather Apps

In preparing for a hurricane, as in many things in life, one of the most important tools you have is information. While you can access information about hurricanes from a variety of sources, including local news, there are a number of smartphone apps that can help you get a handle on what’s going on. The two most popular are Hurricane Tracker and Hurricane: American Red Cross, both of which are available for iPhone and Android.

Manage Battery Life

Hurricanes and power outages go hand in hand. If you’re in an area that gets hit, you’re pretty much guaranteed to lose power for at least a few hours. When that happens, you want to make sure your phone lasts as long as possible. There are a few tricks you can use to extend your phone’s battery life during a storm. First off, you’ll want to keep your phone as fully charged as possible before the storm, so that when the power does go out, you’re starting with a full battery. You should also turn off background app refresh on your iPhone and limit the apps that run in the background on your Android.

Once the power does go out, you should turn off your phone’s wifi, since your home wifi network will go out along with the lights. You should also consider disconnecting any Bluetooth accessories you have, like smartwatches, headphones, and speakers, then turning off the Bluetooth as well. Also, your screen uses a surprising amount of power when its on, so you should reduce its brightness as much as possible, and if you need to use your phone as a flashlight, use the camera flash LED instead of the screen, since it draws a lot less power.

Extra Power

No matter what you do to preserve your phone’s battery life, if your power is out for long enough, you’ll eventually need to recharge. Fortunately, there are a lot of options out there for getting this done. Decent backup battery packs are pretty affordable these days. If you keep a few of those on hand and charged up, you can extend your phone’s battery life by quite a bit. Another way to extend your phone’s battery is by using your laptop. If your laptop is fully charged, you can charge your phone from its battery. All you have to do is turn on the laptop and plug your phone into the USB port on the laptop.

Another ready source of electricity for your phone is sitting in your driveway. Once it’s safe to go outside, you can take your phone out to your car and plug it in. Of course, you’ll want to turn the car on before you do this, so you aren’t stealing power from your car’s battery. Having a working phone is great, but not at the cost of not being able to start your car.

There are also options out there for generating power, including battery packs with built-in hand cranks or solar cells (or both), and larger solar panels with charging ports that can charge up battery packs or cell phones.

Water Protection

One of the major threats posed by hurricanes is from flooding. As a storm moves across the water, it pushes a massive amount of water ahead of it, and when it approaches the land, this water rushes up onto the land as a storm surge. If your house is too close to the water and too low-lying, then you’re going to get flooding. If that happens, you want to have measure in place to protect your phone from water damage, so that when the storm is over, you can still use it. Recent smartphone models from Apple, Samsung, and others have a certain amount of water protection built in, but they aren’t waterproof. You should have a plan in place to protect your phone (and other electronics) from water damage if flooding becomes a problem. There are plenty of options out there, including waterproof cases, waterproof pouches (which often come on a lanyard so you can wear your phone around your neck), or even just putting your phone in a zippered plastic bag or two.

Take Pictures

If your home suffers any kind of significant damage, odds are you’re going to be getting in touch with your homeowner’s insurance company after it’s over. When you do that, it can be helpful to have pictures of your house, yard, and possessions on hand. During your storm preparation, take a little time and go around your house taking pictures of things like TVs, computers, books, etc.

Backups

In previous posts we’ve talked about the importance of maintaining backups – including offsite backups – for your iPhone, Android phone, and PC. This is one of the situations when those backups have the potential to become important. Before the storm hits, make sure all your data (including the pictures you just took) is backed up.

Download Maps

It’s never a bad idea in an emergency situation to have a map of your area on hand, plus maps for any area you might need to evacuate to. Several navigation apps, including Google Maps, Waze, Maps.ME, and others allow you to download maps of your area to your phone, so that you can access them even without a data connection. You can also use your phone to store copies of any important documents you might have stored in a cloud service like DropBox, OneDrive, Google Drive, or iCloud.

While you might be tempted to download some extra audio or video content to your phone so you can use it for entertainment, that’s not really a good idea. During an emergency situation, your phone is a lifeline, and it’s best not to waste your battery on entertainment if your power is out.

What Your Phone Can’t Do

When Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida last year, there was a lot of buzz on social media about an app that would supposedly turn your cell phone into a walkie talkie, so you could use it to communicate even if cell phone service was down. While these posts were mostly well-intentioned, the simple fact is that there is no app that can do this. Your smartphone has three basic ways to communicate with other devices: cellular service, wifi, and Bluetooth. Any app you could possibly download is limited to those three connections. Adding anything beyond that would require modifying the physical hardware of your phone.

The point is, there’s a lot that your phone can do to help you in an emergency situation like a hurricane or other natural disaster, but there’s also a lot it can’t do, and it’s important to understand its limitations, too.

Texting vs. Calling

When the storm is over and you want to let your out-of-state friends and family know that you’re safe, you might be tempted to call them, but you should try to stick to texting, at least initially. Between possible damage to local cell towers and the added network strain of thousands of people trying to contact emergency services or contact their own friends and family, getting a call through can be a bit dicey. A text message is much more likely to go through, since it’s only a tiny amount of data, which means it puts a lot less strain on the network.

Dealing with a hurricane can be hugely stressful, both during the preparation period and the aftermath, but having a plan in place can make it much easier to deal with. For more information on planning for a hurricane, you can check out preparation guides from the National Hurricane Center, the American Red Cross, and others.