Will My Cellphone Work During and After a Hurricane?

This is a bit of a follow-up to yesterday’s off-topic article, Reminder: Zello for Cell Phones is not an Actual Walkie-Talkie, and Still Needs Internet Connectivity to Work. I have some experience in emergency communications. I have been a ham radio operator since I was 14 years old and have been involved in a couple of real emergency communications operations as well as in dozens of preparedness drills. This article details the preparedness plans I follow.

As I explained in yesterday’s article, the very popular and sometimes life-saving Zello walkie-talkie app has one big shortcoming: it needs to be connected to the internet in order to work. That connection might be via wi-fi or via a cell phone company’s data connection to a nearby cell tower. Indeed, internet access can be a problem during a hurricane or other disaster when cell towers and wired internet connections alike are knocked offline. However, internet connectivity still remains more reliable than most any other form of communications.

Comment: There is one notable exception: the most reliable communications method during a hurricane or most other disasters is via satellite phones. These phones are not perfect, but they will provide communications in most disasters when wired telephone and cable connections are knocked offline, cell towers are destroyed, and widespread power outages leave most of the area’s communications infrastructure out of operation.

However, satellite phones are expensive to purchase, and the monthly charges (whether you use the phone or not) are so high that few consumers ever purchase them.

In the recent hurricane disasters in Puerto Rico, the Florida Keys, and nearby areas, a hurricane knocked power offline for weeks. Telephone poles were knocked over and cell towers were flattened. Not only were cell towers knocked over, so were towers and roof-mounted antennas of police departments, fire departments, ambulance services, road crews, and most everything else that depends on two-way radios.

Repairing and replacing those towers and antennas is not a short-term problem. New towers and antennas must be ordered. Since most suppliers do not maintain huge inventories of towers and large antennas, there may be a wait of several weeks, possibly months, before new towers and antennas can be delivered. Once available, installation doesn’t happen overnight either. Erecting a tower may require a week or more. In the Florida keys, dozens of cell towers needed to be installed and there was a shortage of qualified and insured tower installers. That resulted in even more delays.

Luckily, cell phone companies are well equipped with temporary solutions. When the Florida Keys’ cell towers were destroyed, the cellular companies rolled their big trucks containing mobile cellular base stations, crank-up towers, and emergency generators to Florida. (Puerto Rico and other islands weren’t so lucky as the equipment is not easily transported by sea or air.) As soon as the roads were cleared, these trucks were deployed to the hardest-hit areas.

Of course, the trucks’ emergency generators only had enough fuel to run the equipment for a few days. Fuel truck deliveries were scheduled, supplying more diesel fuel to each cell tower-equipped truck every few days.

The cell phones in the disaster areas could not communicate for the first few days after the hurricane until the roads were cleared and the trucks were in place. Nonetheless, cellular voice and data service were back in operation in most areas long before communications was restored via two-way radios, a, wired telephones, cable television/internet connections, and other traditional methods. Even the police departments, fire departments, ambulance services, road crews, and others switched to cell phones to accomplish their missions until new towers and antennas were in place.

To be prepared for your next disaster, here is some advice:

Install the Zello app on your cell phone. Just check with the Cajun Navy as to why this is a good idea. See https://tinyurl.com/y7lc4qfq.

Install other applicable apps, such as Red Cross, in case you need them.

Make sure your cell phone is fully charged before the impending disaster, if possible.

Make sure you have external, fully-charged batteries that will power your cell phone for an extended period of time, if needed. There are dozens of chargers available online, in hardware stores, drug stores, department stores, cell phone stores, and in truck stops. See https://www.amazon.com/s?k=cell+phone+charger+battery&ref=nb_sb_noss_1 for a few of them.

My favorite emergency charger for events lasting several days or longer is a “battery box,” such as this one:

“Battery boxes” are available online and from most local automotive supply stores and will keep your cell phone in operation for weeks without external power. Most of them are multi-purpose as well, supplying power for all sorts of devices, jump-starting automobile batteries, inflating flat tires, blowing up beach balls, and more.

Make sure you have a charging cord for your cell phone that plugs into your automobile’s power outlet (we used to call these “cigarette lighter sockets”.) Your car’s battery will power your cell phone for weeks if needed.

Keep in mind that your car’s power outlet might not supply power until the ignition key is turned on. A better solution is to have a power cord that clips directly onto the automobile battery:

Actually, the above preparations are good for everyone, even those who do not live in a hurricane-prone area. Similar preparations will benefit you in case of blizzards, forest fires, earthquakes, tornados,  floods, and other widespread disasters.

Whatever you do, stay safe!

6 Comments

What is the brand and description of your battery box? Thank you for the information!

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    —> What is the brand and description of your battery box?

    Mine has the DieHard brand and was purchased years ago at a Sears Auto Center. Unfortunately, Sears has since closed many of their auto centers and the Diehard brand seems to have been sold. I now see DieHard products at my local Lowes hardware store. However, I don’t think Lowes is selling these multi-purpose “battery boxes.” At least, I haven’t seen them at my local Lowes.

    The good news is that similar, possibly even better, multi-purpose battery boxes today are available in many places: Amazon, auto supply stores, many hardware stores, and undoubtedly in other places as well.

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There some other tips and tricks I know of since I’ve been in Florida a long time. Go get an old phone that you can plug directly into the socket. Usually you can communicate that way if using a land line. The other is to text. People clog up the cell phone towers so it’s hard to get an outgoing call out. However, you can usually get a text through.occasionally.

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Amazon and others carry a cell phone/iPad/Tablet battery charger that is solar powered. All you need is a source of light to charge the battery, which can then be attached to any device that can be charged via a USB connection.

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I’m also a ham operator. For decades now I have been adding circuitry to each of my vehicles so that I don’t have to open the hood or attach any devices when the power lines go out. From the vehicle’s battery, I wire a special circuit to provide an “always-on” 12VDC power outlet located under the passenger seat that I can reach from the driver’s position. I use 12 gauge wire to supply this outlet with 20 amp fuses on both the + and – side. If I have to, I will drill a small hole in the car’s floor to thread the wires through and hang the wires so that they are supported all the way to the battery. Done properly, I have had circuits like these last 30 years and over 100,000 miles. I wire a 2nd circuit in a similar fashion to provide power to a switched 12VDC-110VAC power inverter in the same position under the passenger seat. I leave a short 110VAC extension cord from the inverter, lying between the seats so that I can plug in various low power AC devices so that they run directly off the car battery. I can reach under the seat and switch the inverter on without looking at it. I always travel with a laptop, and I will pay a bit extra for a dedicated 12VDC power line to supply the laptop. I leave that line in the car since I don’t need it in the house. The battery boxes Dick mentioned all have a 12VDC power receptacle that can supply my laptop for days if necessary.
I have seen advertised heat powered 5 VDC power supplies for backpacker use. They don’t need sunlight, just a small fire inside them. Circuitry inside converts the heat energy to DC power, enough to keep a smart phone going.

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Satellite phones may not be all that great in a major disaster. In the case of Puerto Rico, everyone was sending sat phones into the disaster area – the satellites overloaded. From what I heard, it became nearly unusable until late at night.

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