As Floridians prepare for the potential landfall of Hurricane Irma, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas last month showed how important our electronic devices can be in an emergency. While the first priority in storm prep remains securing the safety of people, pets and property, packing the right electronics, keeping them powered, and using them wisely can make a big difference in staying informed, connected, and safe.

Here are 12 tips from officials, disaster experts and Consumer Reports' electronics testers for using your devices before, during, and after a major storm.

1. Pack the Right Gear

The Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] suggests pre-packing a go-bag to let you get out of your house quickly in an emergency. This bag should include vital supplies to take care of you and your family, including food, water, medicine, plastic bags, and a flashlight. But electronics can also provide a cruicial communications lifeline.

The primary device to bring with you is your smartphone. But if you need to be away from home for days or weeks at a time, a laptop may provide vital tool for everything from contacting your relatives to looking for a hotel room or transferring money between accounts. (Make sure you know your passwords, as well—a password manager can help.)

A laptop or tablet can also provide a diversion for your kids, say, to watch Frozen or play games. Since streaming video may not be an option, consider downloading a couple of movies or television episodes that everyone likes to the device from iTunes or Amazon. If your computer has a DVD drive, tossing a couple of your favorite DVDs in the bag isn’t a bad idea either. If you’ve got a battery-powered radio—or even better, one that’s powered by hand-cranking—be sure to throw that in the bag as well.

2. Charge All Your Devices

Once you’ve picked your devices, the next step is to make sure they can power up. "Start by fully charging all your devices—your phone, your tablet, and your laptop—well ahead of an emergency event," says Maria Rerecich, Director of Electronics Testing for Consumer Reports. "Then remember to put all your chargers in your go-bag." Ahead of time, purchase spare batteries or portable chargers and be sure to charge them, too. Remember, a smartphone could become the primary way you will summon help and track your relatives in a disaster. It's a survival tool, but one that only works if its battery is charged. 

3. Bring Your Car Charger

Bring a car charger—or buy one if you don’t have one. It's a useful way to top up your phone if you lose power. If you’re worried about draining your car battery with your phone, well, don’t. “You’re not going to kill your car battery,” says Richard Fisco, lead phone tester for Consumer Reports. “You could charge 20 phones simultaneously and your car would still crank.”

4. Stash a Power Strip

In a crisis, the right $10 gadget can improve your life immeasurably. When Rerecich’s home was left without electricity after Superstorm Sandy, she packed a power strip and found it invaluable while charging her devices with similarly powerless neighbors at a nearby public library. "Instead of taking turns plugging and unplugging devices we could power six devices at once," she explains. "Everyone was happy."

5. Power Down Your Phone

The other side of the energy equation is doing all you can to conserve energy. “Most phones have a battery-saver mode, which disables automatic updates and notifications,” says Fisco. He adds that you can also save energy by reducing your phone's display brightness and turning off auto brightness feature, which may override your new stingier settings.

Turn off WiFi if you're on the road and away from a WiFi network. And abstain from using power-hungry apps unless they’re totally necessary. “If you’re really concerned about conserving the charge in your battery,  you shouldn’t be streaming video, shooting video, or even taking pictures,” says Fisco. (You can find more detailed phone tips here.)

6. Pack in Plastic

"Electronics and water don't mix," says Rerecich. To keep your devices dry, she suggests packing a variety of zipper-seal bags—sandwich sized for smaller phones, quart-sized for larger phones and AC adapters, and gallon- or jumbo- sized for tablet and small laptops.   

7. Back up to the Cloud

Hopefully, you’ve been backing up the hard drive of your computer and any other devices. If you’re using a physical hard drive to do that, you should consider backing it up to the cloud so that your data will be safe even if your regular backup drive is damaged in the storm. The backup is either free or quite inexpensive.

For example, Microsoft's OneDrive offers 5GB of storage for free and 50GB for $2 per month. If you have a Microsoft Office 365 subscription, you have 1TB of OneDrive space included free.

Apple’s iCloud will store 5GB for free and up to 2TB for $9.99 per month.

You can also use Google’s Backup & Sync to use Google Drive like you would iCloud and OneDrive; 15GB of storage is free. Google offers 1TB for $9.99 per month and a whopping 10TB for $99.99 per month. However, you will be sharing that space with your Gmail account.

But keep in mind that backing up any device to the cloud for the first time can take hours if you have a lot of data. It's best to prepare in advance if you can, or to prioritize critical files first.

8. Make a Digital Meet-Up Plan

Just like your family may have a plan to all meet at the tree in front of your house in case of a fire, it’s a good idea to agree on a social-media meeting place in advance of a natural disaster, says Ainita Chandra, an expert on disaster response at Rand Corporation. “Having a social media game plan is part of any disaster plan,” she says. “And it’s something that needs to be thought through.”

The first order of business is to agree on a platform, such as Facebook or Twitter, and then make sure whatever platform you use is installed on everyone’s devices. Tools such as GroupMe, a group-messaging app, can also make it quicker and easier to communicate. 

Also, designate an out-of-town contact who’ll know to expect your check-ins. That way, if people in the disaster area have only intermittent service and can't get in touch with each other directly, or even have to borrow someone else's phone, there will still be a central source of information for your family.

If possible, try to agree on a check-in time to eliminate unnecessary worrying. FEMA has detailed tips for setting up a personal plan.

9. Set Up Your Emergency Contacts

Many phone users are a bit haphazard about organizing their contacts, especially for their closest friends and relatives. “We tend not to list people by their relationship to us,” Chandra says. She suggests taking a few minutes to set up an ICE [In Case of Emergency] contact in your contacts list, and perhaps even more than one—your spouse, who’s likely nearby, and perhaps a sibling or other close relative who lives out of town.

Additionally, iPhone owners can use the Medical ID function in the device's Health App to set up emergency contacts. Even if the phone is locked, first responders will have access to these critical contacts through the emergency function on the lock screen. On Android phones, the options for setting up emergency contacts vary, but you might try the My Information sub menu, or the ICE app ($3.99)

Note also that on most smartphones, the emergency mode will also allow you to make a 911 call when the phone is locked.

10. Set Up Useful Alerts

Getting the right weather and public safety information is crucial to making smart decisions during a disaster, and you’ve got a more options than ever, says Assoc. Prof. Joseph Trainor, Director of the Disaster Science program at the University of Delaware.

“What do you want? Something simple or something sophisticated?” he says. The National Weather Service, for example, can give you detailed meteorological information about a storm’s stats that can be interesting, but is not always useful. “It’s not just about the threat,” Trainor says. “It’s what you’re going to do about it.”

Instead, Trainor suggests focusing on signing up for alerts before the storm hits. Pay special attention to information that comes from local and county officials that not only predict the storm’s track but offer concrete should-I-stay-or-should-I-go advice based on the latest forecast and other conditions. “These alerts should be reminders that there are things we can do to reduce the risks,” Trainor says.

11. Get Help with 911

The best way to get help when you're in trouble in an emergency is still to call 911. But it’s not always as simple as punching in the numbers.

During Hurricane Harvey, Houston found its 911 system overwhelmed by the sheer volume of calls, and that problem was made worse by the fact that many people hung up after being placed on hold and then called back a few minutes later.

All that accomplished for people in need was getting bumped to the back of the line. So the first piece of advice is this: Even if it's frustrating, stay on hold and wait for help.

You might also be able to send a text message to 911. The Florida Department of Management Services [DMS] suggests emphatically that you should only text to 911 when you can’t make a voice call. Unlike voice calls, text messages don't have location information, and a voice call lets you have a real conversation with the operator.

However, texting remains an important backup option because there are times when the cellular system is stretched so thin that voice calls fail while text messages can get through.

Florida’s Text to 911 is a work in progress—this map will tell you if it’s been completed in your area. Unfortunately, in populous Miami-Dade county, where completion was scheduled for 2017, the system not yet operational.

During Hurricane Harvey, a number of rescues were accomplished after residents reached out for help via social media. Florida’s DMS cautions that a conventional 911 call from a cell phone or a land line should be your first move—not a Facebook plea for assistance.

12. Document Your Belongings

If you’ve completed all the other storm prep steps, FEMA suggests taking the time to walk around your house and take photos or video that could provide useful documentation if you have to make an insurance claim.

Take overall pictures of the room from different angles, individual shots of valuable items, and in the case of electronics, a shot of the model number and the serial number. Hopefully you won’t have to use this photo record, but it could save you hours of headaches and thousands of dollars if you do have to deal with your insurance company after you return home.


Additional reporting by Paul Eng and Tercius Bufete