How to stay digitally connected in a natural disaster

Dec 12, 2012 by Dana Hull

If you live in a disaster-prone area, you likely have an emergency kit that includes a medical kit, flash lights and extra batteries.

But what about your data and devices? Are your key documents - like birth certificates, passports and - scanned and uploaded to a cloud server? Or are they sitting in a box that could be buried, burned or soaked? How do you plan to charge your smartphone if the power is out for several days?

Hurricane Sandy revealed just how dependent Americans have become on their mobile devices. In disasters, those devices become a lifeline: for calling family members, following the news and getting critical information.

After Sandy hit, many New Yorkers walked zombielike from Lower Manhattan, which lost power, in a desperate search for working . Images of people crowding around ad hoc smartphone charging stations were widely circulated.

"The first thing that gets fixed when emergency crews go out is cellphone towers, because that's how first responders are communicating as well," said Sharon Cook, director of marketing for Eton, which makes several models of high-tech emergency radios. "Cellphone towers will be fixed before the power lines. But if your smartphone is dead, that's not very helpful to you."

Eton is not the only maker of emergency radios, but the Palo Alto, Calif.,-based company has a long-standing partnership with the American Red Cross, with several of its products available in a co-branded line with the charitable organization.

Eton sells a variety of emergency radios, including the $60 FRX3, which includes a built-in LED flashlight and a USB smartphone charger. The radio can use four different power sources: AAA batteries, a built-in rechargeable battery, solar power and a hand-crank.

"We have so many stories of people whose houses became hubs of information in , from tornadoes in Alabama to Sandy, because they had our radios," Cook said. "They could use the hand-crank and solar to keep the radio going, and then neighbors were using it to get a little juice for their smartphones."

Other solar-powered smartphone chargers include the PowerMonkey and the Nokero SunRay Pro Power Panel.

New York-based tech journalist Jill Fehrenbacher of wrote about how the Nokero solar charger saved her sanity after Hurricane Sandy.

"This device was the only thing in my house that could draw enough charge through a window to breathe life back into my sad little phone," Fehrenbacher wrote in the article.

"And what a difference a charged phone made! Once my phone was finally charged I was able to check the news, find out that power would be out for probably at least a week, and then, subsequently, make arrangements to high-tail it out of the dark, cold & desperate SoPo ('South of Power') zone to a friend's place uptown to enjoy a hot shower, clean water, warm food and news."

In a disaster, you may lose all hard copies of your critical personal documents. Upload password-protected copies of key documents - insurance policies, passports, birth certificates, photographs of pets - to a backup drive that is secured in a remote location or to a cloud-based storage system. Another option is to email copies of the documents to yourself.

Store extra batteries or chargers - ideally hand-cranked or solar - with your emergency kits or in an automobile so your devices can remain powered.

The Red Cross also has a "Safe and Well" website designed to let family and friends know that you are OK after a disaster. You can click on a "List Myself as Safe and Well" button to register yourself on the site, and concerned friends and relatives can search the list.


Your natural disaster emergency kit should include water, food, flashlights and a medical kit. But you also need a solar-powered or hand-cranked radio, preferably one that can charge your cellphone, and extra batteries or chargers (hand-crank or solar) for your phone. Here are a few other tips for being digitally prepared:

1. Be sure to upload key documents - birth certificate, passport, insurance policies, rental agreements or mortgage documents, family photos and photos of pets - to a backup drive that is secured in a remote location or to a cloud-based storage system.

2. Download key apps from the American Red Cross, including the First Aid app: .

3. Identify an out-of-town friend you can call who can be your point of contact if communication systems locally fail or are overwhelmed.

Explore further: Privacy groups take 2nd hit on license plate data

not rated yet
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Harness power of the sun with solar gadgets

Aug 26, 2009

In the past, if you wanted a solar-powered gadget, you typically had to shell out a lot of cash for something made by a company you'd never heard of. But that's starting to change, as major brands such as ...

Think Solar Solutions: Outdoor Lantern & World Band Radio

Oct 01, 2007

Several new solar powered items caught my eye. The Discovery Outdoor Lantern has a multi-source power solution for camping and outdoor activities. In a fixed position it becomes an incandescent spotlight. The World Band Solar ...

Recommended for you

Privacy groups take 2nd hit on license plate data

Sep 19, 2014

A California judge's ruling against a tech entrepreneur seeking access to records kept secret in government databases detailing the comings and goings of millions of cars in the San Diego area via license plate scans was ...

Scots' inventions are fuel for independence debate

Sep 17, 2014

What has Scotland ever done for us? Plenty, it turns out. The land that gave the world haggis and tartan has produced so much more, from golf and television to Dolly the Sheep and "Grand Theft Auto."

White House backs use of body cameras by police

Sep 16, 2014

Requiring police officers to wear body cameras is one potential solution for bridging deep mistrust between law enforcement and the public, the White House said, weighing in on a national debate sparked by the shooting of ...

Chinese city creates cellphone sidewalk lane

Sep 15, 2014

Taking a cue from an American TV program, the Chinese city of Chongqing has created a smartphone sidewalk lane, offering a path for those too engrossed in messaging and tweeting to watch where they're going.

Coroner: Bitcoin exchange CEO committed suicide

Sep 15, 2014

A Singapore Coroner's Court has found that the American CEO of a virtual currency exchange committed suicide earlier this year in Singapore because of work and personal issues.

User comments : 0