April Showers Knock Out Power: Are Your Prepared for Natural Disaster?

I spent a tense 30 minutes the other night huddled on the floor in the hallway outside my father’s hospital room. The National Weather Service had issued a tornado warning for the area, and the hospital had gone into “Weather Plan 2” mode. Everyone in the building—even the patients who couldn’t get out of bed—had to gather in the hallways. My father was one of those temporarily bed-ridden patients, and I’m sure that the mind-twisting aftereffects of anesthesia coupled with post-op morphine made the hurried, bumpy rush from his room to a hall full of two dozen other patients seem even more surreal than it was for me. It became even more surreal after all the patients were returned to their rooms following an “all clear” announcement when, within minutes, the whole process was repeated (albeit with significantly more grumbling from the patients and staff.)

As I was busily texting and tweeting about the collective predicament we were in (it’s actually not true that I caused a small riot when I ran through the hallway yelling “Morphine for all!”), the flickering of the hallway lights during the height of the storm started me thinking about how incredibly dependent we are on technology—technology that most of us take totally for granted until it doesn’t work anymore. Lights turn on at the flip of a switch, and water pours from the tap with the turn of a knob; not to mention that in hospitals and, increasingly, homes, there’s often the added technology of motion sensors that automatically turn on/off lights, faucets, hand dryers, and more. Water flows and rooms brighten, sure as the sun rises in the morning. Isn’t that right?

Now, planning and organization are not two of my best attributes. I can barely pack a suitcase without leaving out at least one important item, such as underwear or pants; and you might as well ask me to plan a trip to Mars as task me with putting together the basic necessities of a personal or family disaster kit. Like me, you probably haven’t thought much about having one because, well, disasters happen to other people not you. The only problem is that sometimes bad disasters happen to good people. The moral of the story is that it shouldn’t take the nearby presence of a funnel cloud or two to get your disaster act together.

Weather or Not
Fortunately, you don’t have to bust your brain trying to think about basic disaster supplies. FEMA’s Ready.gov website has an easy-to-use ”Build A Kit” section that’ll assist you in planning the best disaster kit for you, your family (don’t forget to include necessities for your family pets, too) or your business. For the more technologically dependent crowd, however, you might want to add a few items to the kit that’ll keep your important electronics going—some of which might make the difference between life and death—in a time of need.

The fine folks at Wilson Electronics—the company that makes amazing cellphone signal boosting equipment for use in vehicles, buildings, and areas with poor signal coverage—recently provided an extended infographic listing the basics necessary for a newfangled “21st Century Emergency Gadget Kit”. Scroll to the end to see it.

Don’t let the fact that a cellphone signal booster—such as the Wilson Electronics Sleek 4G model—is the first 21st Century emergency gadget on the list fool you into thinking this is nothing more than a self-serving marketing brochure designed to scare you into making a purchase. After helping move my bed-fuddled dad into the hospital hallway during the tornado warning, the next thing I did was look at my cellphone. First I starting browsing for the latest weather info. Then I was determined to text and tweet my final moments out to the world for all of posterity to read and empathize with me. (Thank goodness HIPPA regulations kept me from blasting out a selfie or two…) Seriously, though, a working smartphone is a precious lifeline in a storm or other major mishap.

As you might expect, a couple of portable lithium-ion batteries are on the list; but these aren’t the typical, cheap, “give me three minutes on my phone”, 2,000 or 3,000 mAh rechargeable batteries. The recommendation is to include two batteries with 10,000 mAh capacity each so you’ll have plenty of power to charge “at least three cellphones” or keep a tablet, netbook, or the aforementioned cellphone signal booster running for several hours. You certainly can find a few battery packs that pack this much power for not much more than $20, but I’d recommend spending the extra money to get a highly reliable, well-reviewed portable battery pack. $30 or $40 is going to seem like chump change if you’re sitting in the dark with a dead cellphone battery and no other way to contact the outside world. In fact, it’s probably worth it to spend a bit more to get a pair of even higher capacity batteries. And get two smaller ones rather than one humongous one so that you’ll still have a battery to use if one fails.

If Fate throws an extended disaster your way, such as a flood, hurricane, or earthquake, you’ll eventually run out of juice with even the largest of the portable battery packs in your disaster kit. So you should also include a portable solar panel capable of recharging the batteries when the power lines are down. Sure, solar panels won’t do much for you if you’re trapped in a building or a cave; but it’ll be mighty handy for most other troubled situations.

The next Emergency Gadget that’s on the list is an LED headlamp. I’m no expert in these matters, of course, but I might opt instead for a rechargeable flashlight with a built-in hand crank to power up the internal battery when it’s running low. (At least, I’d include it in addition to the LED headlamp.) On the other hand, there are some portable solar chargers that are designed to top off rechargeable AA and AAA batteries - the size of battery normally used in LED headlamp-style flashlights. With that type of charger, I’d definitely go with the headlamp. It’s much more convenient.

The fourth and last electronic gizmo on the 21st Century Emergency Gadget Kit list is a set of two-way FRS/GMRS radios that’ll let you talk with each other up to 30 miles away. The best part about the FRS/GMRS radios is that they do not rely on a network—cellular or otherwise—to communicate. Even if telephone lines are down and cell towers are out of commission, these handheld radios won’t care. (If the Earth gets fried with deadly radiation from a direct hit by a massive solar flare, all bets are off, however…) Make sure the FRS/GMRS radios you choose either come with internal rechargeable batteries or, better yet, can use the standard AA or AAA rechargeable batteries you packed in the kit along with the portable solar charger.

FEMA’s helpful ”Emergency Supply List” contains some basics you might not think of on your own, such as paper and pencils, a whistle to signal for help, and a can opener for any of the canned foods you might have also packed. The list includes something called “Books, games, puzzles or other activities for children”. I suppose that means Kindles, tablets, smartphones, and a portable DVD or BD player. Is there anything else that kids play with?

I hope you never have to struggle for survival in the midst of a disaster (natural or man-made) or come close to one as I did last week. I also hate to spend money—or tell you to spend money—on gadgets that might never get used. But until we get Minority Report-style weather and disaster forecasting, you’ll just have to take the chance that a modern-day electronic gadget disaster kit is nothing more than a big waste of money—because the alternative is a lot worse.