How to Get in Touch With Loved Ones During and After a Disaster

NOTE: This article has nothing to do with genealogy. However, it is information that I suggest everyone should know, so I am offering it here. If you are looking for a true genealogy-related article, you might want to skip this one.

From flash flooding and hurricanes to earthquakes and tornadoes, disaster can strike at any time. One of the first things on the minds of those directly or indirectly involved in such situations is the well-being of their loved ones.

 

When Hurricane Harvey pounded Texas and Louisiana in 2017, many users on Twitter and Facebook reached out to strangers for help in locating their missing loved ones. Success was limited as these services were overwhelmed. There are better ways of communicating.

Depending upon the nature of the emergency, all electricity, telephones, and even all cell phone towers might be out of commission. In such cases, the use of telephones, cell phone towers, the Internet, and other high tech means of communications will be useless. If you really need to make contact under those conditions, your choices are limited. I’d suggest contacting a nearby ham radio operator and asking him or her to relay a message for you. Many ham operators, but not all, are prepared for such conditions and can make long-distance contacts using equipment powered by batteries or generators.

This article will focus on the days following a disaster as communications systems come back online or for those situations when some, but not all, of the high-tech communications systems do not go off line. I would suggest everyone should think of their own preparedness for power outages, whether caused by weather, automobiles running into telephone poles, or any other calamities.

You cannot accurately predict which communications services will be available or out of service during a disaster.

Even during the Texas and Louisiana disasters, cell towers either remained operational or else returned to operation long before landline phones were repaired and available for use. In blizzards in the colder regions (where I have lived most of my life), cell towers rarely go offline during bad weather. Generators at the cell phone tower site will normally keep the towers in operation for days, even when ice and snow cause tree limbs to fall and break telephone lines. Your cell phone will work under those conditions, assuming you have not drained the phone’s battery. (More on that in a moment.)

During Hurricane Irma in the Florida Keys, most cell towers were flattened, along with the towers used by police, fire, ambulance services, and more. Telephone wires were mostly damaged or wiped out by falling tree limbs and other debris. In many cases, the police departments were unable to use their now-flattened towers and were reduced to using walkie-talkies and 2-way radios in their automobiles. Without a tower to rebroadcast their signals, communications were often reduced to a range of one mile or, at best, a very few miles. Many of the emergency services switched to cell phones or to Zello (described below) for communications once the cellular service was restored. Then they had to wait for weeks for their normal communications towers to be repaired or replaced.

While the cell phone towers were flattened, the cell phone companies had one tool that the other services usually do not: truck-mounted or trailer-mounted mobile cell towers. As soon as the highways were cleared, cell phone company trucks moved into the Florida Keys and deployed where the needs were the greatest. The portable, truck-mounted towers were cranked up and the onboard equipment ran for days on generators. Fuel trucks occasionally visited each mobile cell tower location and refilled the generators’ fuel tanks for weeks until more permanent towers could be repaired or replaced.

As a result, cell phone coverage was out for a few days but was usually the first communication service to return to operation.

How do you prepare for similar disasters where you live?

A key step that should occur well in advance of a disaster is developing a family plan to ensure that everyone is in the loop about how to stay connected.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Ready.gov web site recommends discussing four main topics, including the shelter plan, evacuation route, communication plan and how you’ll receive emergency alerts or warnings.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers a family communication plan template to simplify the process of creating an emergency strategy.

If you want to use technology to communicate, you need to be prepared for power outages.

Perhaps the best solution is also the most expensive one: obtain a satellite phone. Indeed, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and several other Caribbean islands, the only reliable methods of communication with the outside world was by satellite phone or by ham radio. The satellite phones worked well for weeks and months after the disaster, even when all other forms of communications were inoperative. The problem is that satellite phones are expensive. Very few families can justify the expense unless the breadwinner(s) in the family needs one for business requirements.

Still, if you live in an area where hurricanes are a real and constant danger (I’m talking about you, Puerto Rico!), you might consider purchasing a satellite phone and possibly even sharing the expense with relatives and neighbors, or perhaps organizing a group that will donate a satellite phone to your local 911 responders.

For most of us, we will rely on cell phones and laptop computers and use them once the cellular networks return to operation.

What to do when the communications systems are restored

In short, be prepared! Waiting until after a disaster strikes to create a plan will not help you very much.

Electricity may not return for several days or, in Puerto Rico, for months. Cellular towers might return to operation soon after a disaster but may be overloaded as everyone is trying to call loved ones. Telephone lines may not be operational for days or weeks. In short, you want to be prepared for a long wait. You need charged batteries and perhaps smartphone apps that will communicate even when normal cell phone and telephone connections are overloaded. Experience has proven that smartphone apps that communicate over data connections usually become reliable long before the normal voice connections become available. Voice connections often remain overloaded with calls for days following an emergency while data connections typically become available sooner.

There are many cell phone apps available that can prove beneficial in an emergency and that work despite lack of cell service. Social media can also be accessible if an Internet connection can be found. You might be able to use Twitter or Facebook and communicate with people although I would not recommend relying on those services alone.

When Hurricane Harvey pounded Texas and Louisiana in 2017, thousands of people used Zello, a free smartphone app that emulates a walkie-talkie. Zello communicates over either cellular data or wi-fi data. During the recent hurricanes, Zello users frequently were able to communicate over these data connections even when cellular voice connections were overloaded and returned constant busy signals.

The major drawback of Zello is that both you and your loved ones need to have the Zello app installed and open in your smartphones in order to communicate. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I have found several uses for Zello during non-emergency situations.

See my earlier article, The Zello App Can Help Save Lives During Major Storms and Has Many Others Uses Also, that describes the “Cajun Navy” at: http://bit.ly/2H9TWjw. You can find more information about Zello at http://www.zello.com.

Another app that is used to quickly notify loved ones is called Life360. It is useful for disasters of all sorts—not only hurricanes and similar disasters, but also for family emergencies such as an automobile accident, a medical emergency, a need to pick up a child after ball practice, or similar needs to quickly communicate with family members. According to the Life360 web site at https://www.life360.com:

PEACE OF MIND

Life360 is available on iPhone and Android

With hectic schedules and long to do lists, managing the day to day for your family can feel like a full time job. Life360 is here to help! Whether you’re making dinner plans, coordinating carpools, or just ensuring everyone arrived home safe, Life360 gives you simplified communication and peace of mind right at your fingertips.

THE COMPLETE AWARENESS PACKAGE

Safe, Synchronized & Together

No more endless texts and calls wondering, did Sarah make it home? Has Dad left the office? When will Mom arrive to pick me up? With Life360, just open the app and instantly see everyone in your private Circle on the map. You can also message the whole group at once or privately.

Avoid annoying “where are you?” calls and just send a quick “check-in” to let Mom know you’ve made it to soccer practice and you’re doing great. Or you can make it really easy, and automate the whole thing by adding “Places” to alert you when Circle members come and go from your favorite spots.

And It’s Free! Download Today

You can learn more about Life360 at https://www.life360.com and in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.

But how long will your batteries last?

In the case of a disaster, a couple of fully-charged backup batteries will be your best friends. Luckily, that preparation is easy to accomplish. While cell towers may remain fully operational during a disaster or will return to operation soon after the worst of the disaster passes, the weak points of individual cell phones and personal wi-fi hotspots are batteries. Most cell phones must be recharged every 24 hours or so. That certainly is not long enough to handle all emergencies. The recent hurricane disasters lasted from one day to several weeks. How do we prepare for those outages?

Two answers: generators and previously-charged batteries.

Generators

Power generators are a great solution but are expensive, bulky, and noisy for home use. Keeping a typical gasoline or diesel powered generator prepared for immediate use at any time also requires a bit of planned maintenance every few months. If you have the space and the finances for a generator, I’d say, “Go for it.” However, for many people living in condos, apartments, or even in heavily populated neighborhoods, generators are not an option.

If you own a recreational vehicle, you may have a generator installed there. Motor homes almost always have generators while travel trailers may or may not have them. In any case, use whatever you have available.

Batteries

I depend on batteries—primarily on batteries that can charge other batteries, such as cell phones, tablet computers, lanterns, and even a laptop computer. The batteries tend to be inexpensive or moderately inexpensive, never as expensive as a generator. Batteries typically require no maintenance at all other than making sure they are charged periodically and ready on a moment’s notice.

Keeping a spare external battery or two for a cell phone or tablet computer is simple and not very expensive. Dozens of companies sell external batteries that will recharge a cell phone or tablet computer. Most of them charge by the device’s USB connector. Some laptop computers (Apple MacBook Pro, some Windows laptops, and many Chromebooks) also may be charged via the computer’s USB-C connector.

These batteries are simple to use: keep them charged by using whatever charger is included with the battery or with the USB connector on your computer. Then, when you need to charge one of your devices, take the charging cable that came with your cell phone or tablet, connect one end to the cell phone or tablet in the normal manner, and connect the other end to the USB connector in the external battery. Wait a few hours for the charging to complete, and your cell phone or tablet is fully charged again.

Prices for external batteries seem to vary from $10 to $50 or more. The cheaper batteries will recharge a typical cell phone once while the more expensive ones can recharge a cell phone five times or more before requiring a recharge of the external battery itself. You certainly will prefer that higher capacity external battery in a week-long power outage!

I always keep more than two high capacity external batteries fully charged so that I am prepared for a power outage of several days or even longer. These same batteries are nice to throw into a briefcase or backpack when making a long trip, such as a coast-to-coast or international trip by airplane. Using an external battery means you can keep your tablet computer charged and operational throughout the entire flight.

I always look for external batteries with a 10,000 mAh (milli-Amp Hours) storage capacity or more. (I recently purchased a 24,000 mAh external battery from an online sale.) You can find these external batteries in any computer store, from Amazon, and even in some gas stations and drug stores. Remember that the higher the storage capacity (measured in mAh), the more times it will recharge your cell phone during a multi-day power outage.

Some of the external batteries have a feature I like: they can be charged by built-in solar cells. The solar cells may add $10 or $20 to the purchase price but reduce the need to remember to keep them charged at all times. Need a fully charged external battery in an emergency? My solar-powered battery is always ready.

Your Automobile is also an excellent Battery Charger

One “charger” that is often overlooked is your automobile. The big battery in the car can recharge your cell phone a dozen times or more. That can keep you in communications for weeks. I always keep a charging cable for my cell phone in the automobile’s glove box, along with an inexpensive adapter that plugs into the power outlet in the dashboard. These serve two purposes. First, if the cell phone battery is dead when I am driving and I need to make a call, the cable and adapter can be plugged into the power outlet and into the cell phone at any time. I then can make a call within seconds, something that is useful in emergencies. Second, if there is a power outage at the house, I can take the cell phone or tablet to the car and use it there and can even recharge it there multiple times.

NOTE: Some automobiles only supply power to the dashboard’s power outlet when the ignition key is turned on. Check yours in advance! If you want to charge your cell phone in such an automobile, you might want to invest in “power clips” that clip directly onto the automobile’s battery under the hood. Any auto supply store will have these, as will Amazon and dozens of other retailers.

The Ultimate External Battery

Would you like to have the ultimate external battery that will keep your cell phone and tablet computer running for weeks? How about running a television set for several days? It will even keep a power-hungry appliance, such as a refrigerator, operational for a few hours although not for days.

The same device can not only charge batteries, but it can also jump start dead batteries in automobiles, add air to the auto’s tires, blow up beach balls, and more. Most of these external batteries also are great emergency flashlights or lanterns.

All auto supply stores sell portable jump starters. These heavy devices always include a heavy-duty battery, capable of jump starting an automobile that has a dead battery. Many of the same “jump starters” also include air compressors, lights, 12-volt power outlets, and (my favorite) even USB connectors into which you can plug the charging cord of a cell phone or tablet. Any of these jump starters can keep your cell phone or tablet computer running for weeks.

A few jump starters, but not all of them, also include inverters that convert the internal battery’s 12-volt D.C. current into 110-volts A.C. These will power a laptop computer for days or even a television or possibly a kitchen appliance for a few hours. Don’t try to power a device that consumes a lot of power, however. No hair dryers, curling irons, or space heaters as these will run even the biggest battery flat within a very short time.

Prices for these multi-purpose jump starters run from perhaps $40 up to $200 or so. The most expensive ones seem to appeal to professional automobile mechanics. I probably wouldn’t pay more than $125 or so for a unit that will receive intermittent use at home.

Make sure the unit you buy has a “trickle charger” that you can leave plugged in all the time. Not all jump starters offer this. Leaving the battery charger connected all the time can “cook” (ruin) the battery in a jump starter that is not designed to be connected all the time. The better jump starters will include trickle chargers that can be left plugged in continuously. When you have a need, these continuously-charged batteries are always ready to go.

Here’s a hint: watch for sales at the Sears Auto Center near you. Sears occasionally offers deeply discounted sale prices, and the jump starters with the Craftsman label have a lifetime warranty. I once purchased a cheaper jump starter from a local discount store, but the battery died within a couple of years. (It had a one year warranty, naturally.) I then went to Sears and purchased a heavier-duty jump starter that was on sale for only a few dollars more. That was seven years ago, and the Sears unit still works today.

Notice the two USB connectors, two 110-volt household power outlets and the two 12-volt power outlets on the above device. There is also a light just above the “DieHard” logo that can serve as a long lasting flashlight.

Of course, these multi-purpose jump starters have many more uses than simply starting automobiles. I always keep a plugged-in jump starter in the house and often use it to jump start a neighbor’s automobile or to inflate flat tires for the same neighbors. Most importantly, it is always ready to power my cell phone, laptop, and tablet computers for a week or more.

Be careful: these jump starters are heavy! That’s because they have a heavy-duty battery that can keep your cell phone running for weeks.

Summation

In order to be prepared for power outages, you have multiple options to choose from. One person’s best choice might not be appropriate for another person, depending upon each person’s requirements, location, and local weather patterns. However, I hope this article provides fodder for your thought processes to help you decide what is best for you.

 

14 Comments

Invertor generators like those made by Honda (EU xxxx series) and Yamaha produce significantly less noise than traditional gensets. They sip gasoline and create a cleaner more sine wave like voltage. The downside is they are significantly more expensive then traditional generator designs.

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My wife and I have had Life360 for several years. Generally it tracks accurately, but on several occasions the depicted location lags behind the actual location by more than 15 minutes. So the viewer sees where the other user was located rather than where they currently are located.

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American Red Cross is well acquainted with the problem of family reunification and has advice at http://www.redcross.org/get-help/disaster-relief-and-recovery-services/contact-and-locate-loved-ones. Pay special attention to the Safe and Well service where dislocated people can list their status and location in a central database and family members can search that database for loved ones.Dislocated people register themselves, either through access arrangements set up in shelters or through any other internet access they can find.

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When you recommend “free” applications you should remind people that the providers of these are in business to make a profit, which they do by collecting data about you through your use of your phone and information you have stored there, and then selling that information to anyone willing to pay for it.

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    That is partially true but with one exception: the genealogy-related web sites I am familiar with do not sell that information to anyone else. They keep it for their own purposes but do not sell the information or give it away to anyone else. I cannot speak for the web sites outside of the genealogy-related ones as I do not have much experience with them.

    Like

I am a ham radio operator. Sending messages via ham connections requires the location and/or phone number of the non-ham recipient. This can work for displaced people getting messages to people who have not been displaced, but has obvious problems going the other way.

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    —> Sending messages via ham connections requires the location and/or phone number of the non-ham recipient.

    Agreed.

    I have more than a bit of ham radio experience. I have held the call K1OJH for the past 58 years. (I’m getting old… sigh). Along the way I also was issued a few other call letters when operating from overseas locations but I always kept my original call as my primary one. I have held an Extra Class license for 48 years.

    Liked by 1 person

    It is a shame that so few people know how easy it is to get a basic Technician amateur license and how cheap it is to secure a basic 2-M handheld transceiver that can be used to communicate with other local amateur operators. Years back I got my Technician license simply by studying all the free online coursework available (basically taking the randomly ordered questions until I could answer all of them correctly). The test costs about $15 now. At the last Hamvention I got a dirt cheap Chinese made 2M & 70cm transceiver new for $24 – cheaper than a dedicated weather band radio (which band also works perfectly on the amateur device).
    In the scenario Dick just mentioned, that handheld unit could be used to contact a local ham operator with other capabilities to reach out of a disaster area and get in touch with distant relations during a crisis.

    Like

    You were at the Hamvention??? I didn’t see you there!

    Liked by 1 person

Solar cell phone chargers could be useful in an emergency situation.

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A solar panel is a cheap way to charge batteries, just need the sun.

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A small and cheap 12VDC to 110VAC inverter is, IMHO, a good way to bridge the capabilities of a car’s battery / engine and devices that don’t need much AC power, such as cell phone, small radio and some home lighting. I think every car owner should already have one in his car ready to go at a moment’s notice. I too am a ham radio operator. For years I have been directly wiring small inverters to my vehicle batteries and storing them under the front passenger seat. I can reach under the seat, plug in, say, a phone charger, and switch it on. This only take a few seconds. The rest of the time the inverter is powered off & out of sight.
This is all best done long before any disaster strikes.
I once took an informal poll at a local amateur radio meeting when we were discussing disaster preparation. Oddly, only 10% of those answering the poll actually had bothered to have their own vehicles pre-equipped with such an inverter.

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After the earthquake in Chile, my cousin let all the family know that everyone was safe, when he got a chance to get cell signal, by posting a short message on facebook…. one message got to most of the family and those of us in the states relayed to others. In California because of the earthquakes, we appointed one relative in TX as the contact. A message to her was then relayed to most friends and family by email or Facebook post

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