How Technology Can Help in a Disaster

Hurricane Sandy left thousands of people suffering without electricity, water, and food. Follow Tech Talker’s tips on how your technology can help save you in a future disaster.

Eric Escobar
5-minute read
Episode #53

As I’m pretty sure all of you know, the American East Coast and parts of the Caribbean were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. During and after the storm, many Tech Talker fans wrote to me asking about how to protect their technology from disaster – and also, how technology can help protect us in the event of another life-or-death emergency.

That’s why I decided to dedicate today’s show to answering a few questions related to disaster tech preparedness.>

How to Safeguard Your Gadgets From Disaster

The first question that came up a lot is how to safeguard technology from disaster. I’ve covered this extensively in my earlier episode on backing up your data, so make sure to check it out right away. The best thing you can do to keep your data safe is to keep your computer’s back-up far away from your computer. That way, if fire, flood, or hurricane devastates your home, you don’t have to worry about your back-up being destroyed, too. The best and most cost effective way to do this is through a service such as Crashplan or Carbonite, which will back up your files automatically and offsite.

So that will safeguard your data, but what about your computer and other electronics? Well, as you know from my very first Tech Talker episode, water can do some terrible things to electronics, especially if there is electricity running through the circuits. That’s why the best thing you can do in the event of a flood is to pull the wall plug or remove any batteries from your devices. This will help prevent a short caused by the ions in the water.

How Your Gadgets Can Save You in a Disaster

If you are a regular Tech Talker listener, then I’m sure you knew about those last two tips already. But now, let’s talk about how technology can help you in a crisis.

One of the most useful items that I’ve found for emergencies is a battery backup. This is basically like a giant laptop battery that can run appliances when your power fails. The price of these battery backup systems can range from $100 to $1,000 depending on how large you want it.

Generally, battery backup units are only good to run small things for a while, or large objects (such as a computer) for a few minutes. I live in California and we often experience power outages when temperatures get into the hundreds. Trust me when I say this, it is a huge bummer when you’re finishing that last sentence on a paper and power goes out.

Having a battery backup system plugged in will automatically ensure that you can save your document or project and have enough time to back it up and shut down properly so that nothing is lost. Depending what you’re working on, if it saves you once, it might well be worth the cost!

Do I Need a Generator? Nah…

Next, let’s get into generators. But first, here’s my disclaimer. Electricity is dangerous stuff, so be sure to read up on how the items I mention in this podcast will work with your devices. The last thing I want is for one of my listeners to have a shocking surprise.

OK, so you’re probably thinking that generators are a really complex topic. But in reality, many of you drive a generator to work every day!

That’s right, a car can act as an amazing backup generator in an emergency. For about $20, you can buy a small device called an inverter that plugs into the cigarette lighter of your car and converts that car power to USB and wall power. This small inverter is generally great for smaller, less energy-intensive devices such as laptops and smartphones. But how helpful would this little investment be if you’re in a disaster and your cell phone dies and you can’t get in touch with anybody?

If you want to get even more high tech, you can buy a larger inverter for about $50 that can use your car battery to power large items, such as a refrigerator. Just keep in mind that the engine will have to be running so that your battery doesn’t die.

These inverters may not be able to power a whole house, but they will sure work for smaller devices if you’re in a pinch. Plus, you don’t need much to get yourself prepared. All you need is your car and the inverter and voila, you have yourself a MacGyvered generator.

If you want to know way more about this topic, check out this link to the Survival Podcast.

Communication During a Disaster

The next base you’ll want to cover is communication. In a disaster, both cell and landline networks can go down or get flooded with calls. This is obviously not ideal if you’re trying to get in touch with someone, but keep in mind that there are many other ways to communicate. During Hurricane Sandy, many people could still use cellular data, even though they couldn’t make calls. This meant that they could tweet, email, and sometimes even text loved ones.

See also: Should I Keep My Landline Phone?

Of course there may not always be a reliable cell network in every disaster, so the best way to be prepared is to get a radio such as a HAM, CB, or MURS. These are completely different from one another and have completely different applications such as long range communication, for emergency responders and for radio enthusiasts.

I’ll go into detail about radios in another podcast, but essentially they are way more reliable than your cell phone because they can send and receive messages independent of any network. This is completely different from cell towers and landline networks that require a huge infrastructure to be maintained in order for them to work. For example, let’s say you wanted to call your next door neighbor using your cell phone. This is the path your call would take: The signal would have to go from your cell phone, to a cell tower, then through the routing network, then to their phone. If any link in that chain is broken, the call won’t go through.

Radios are different in that they send and receive signals without the need for a vast network. When you send a radio transmission, it is picked up directly by another radio – no middlemen necessary.

If you want to know more about radios (especially HAMs) my call sign is KJ6OHH, or you can shoot me an email to techtalker@quickanddirtytips.com. I love radios so if you want to hear an episode on this topic, let me know.

And be sure to check out all my earlier episodes at techtalker.quickanddirtytips.com. And if you have further questions about this podcast or want to make a suggestion for a future episode, post your comments on the Tech Talker Facebook page.

Until next time, I’m the Tech Talker, keeping technology simple!

Man with Radio and Gadgets images courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Eric Escobar

Tech Talker demystifies technology and cutting edge devices so that even the most tech illiterate can understand what's going on with their computer or gadget — and what to do when something goes wrong.