Mollie Vandor is the Product Manager for Ranker.com and Media Director for Girls in Tech LA. You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, where she writes about the web, the world and what it’s like to be a geek chic chick.
Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes — lately, it seems like there’s a new natural disaster wreaking havoc on poor planet Earth every week. From our television sets to our Twitter streams, it’s impossible to ignore the devastation these disasters leave behind. And, no matter where you’re watching from, it’s hard not to feel just a little bit helpless in the face of such colossal catastrophes.
But when it comes to natural disasters, modern technology is making it easier than ever to take control by creating your own emergency response system — no high pitched beeping required. There are tons of tools to help you create emergency preparedness plans, keep in touch during a disaster, and get your life back after one strikes. Nothing will keep you safer or saner during a natural disaster than having a good plan in advance.
Create a Plan
According to FEMA, the best way to avoid significant damage during a disaster is to prepare an emergency response plan in advance. The FEMA website is a great place to get that process started. In fact, they offer an easy checklist of items you should consider when putting together your plan: Escape routes, family communications, utility shut-off and safety, insurance and vital records, special needs, caring for animals, and safety skills. It seems like a lot, but fortunately, there are plenty of resources to help make all that planning much easier.
Figuring out your escape route is probably the top priority when it comes to emergency preparedness. And, making sure that your loved ones know where to go and how to meet up could help keep your family together when everything else is falling apart. That’s where Google’s MyMaps service comes in handy. MyMaps lets you plan a route using landmarks, lines, and shapes, and lets you easily share that route or access it on your mobile browser. Of course, the most reliable option in a disaster is still the lo-fi hard copy of that escape route. MyMaps lets you print perfect copies so you can laminate them and stick them everywhere from the fridge door to the kids’ backpacks.
And while you’re throwing things in those backpacks, also think about including an ID card, in case your child is separated from their caretaker during a disaster. You can easily order ID cards online at places like Life360, a site that offers multiple mobile and web-based emergency planning services, including ID cards for your kids and a messaging system that contacts your entire network of family and friends during a disaster.
Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of emergency preparedness apps. From the ICE app for iPhone and Android, which stores your emergency contacts and medical information, to the self-explanatory Emergency Preparedness Checklist (iPhone), there are plenty of quick, easy and mobile options to help you get a jump on your emergency planning.
Plus, if you share my proclivity for destroying any home improvement project you come within five feet of, there’s also an easy online guide to help you shut off your utilities, from the Washington state Department of Health. And, the only technical knowledge required is the ability to print the super-simple instructions and tape them up near your door.
Keep In Touch
One of the scariest parts of any emergency is not being able to reach the people you love — and knowing that the people you love might not be able to reach you. And, of course, you want to stay abreast of all the breaking news about whatever it is that’s going on. Fortunately, one of the best advantages of our constantly-connected world is that there are multiple channels for communication. When one channel goes down during a disaster, you might still be able to get through on another one.
The first thing to do is make sure you have a backup plan for keeping all your gadgets in good working order during a disaster. Now might be a good time to invest in a solar charger for your iPhone or Blackberry, for example — not to mention a hand-cranked emergency radio, flashlight and flares. Or, you could just hit up the Red Cross Store for a gadget that does all of the above, and charges your MP3 player too. If you’d rather just upgrade your existing gadgets, check out the Emergency Radio app, which turns your iPhone into a supercharged scanner for police, fire, NOAA and other emergency radio frequencies.
Even without any extra apps, your 3G-enabled phone will likely help you stay connected in case of an emergency. Even though phone lines may be down or jammed, the 3G network won’t necessarily be out as well. This is how Twitter status updates helped locate a missing person during the recent Chile earthquake. So, having an app for Twitter, Instant Messenger, or even Facebook on your mobile device might help you keep in touch with loved ones who can’t get through to you via more traditional means of communication. And, a quick status update telling everyone where you are and how you’re doing could help give loved ones peace of mind in the middle of the chaos that comes with a catastrophe.
Speaking of peace of mind, FEMA will actually e-mail you disaster updates in real-time, so you can stay up to date on the latest breaking disaster news. Most college campuses have similar services, so students — and their parents — can receive regular text messages and e-mails during an emergency. The FCC actually maintains a pretty good list of these services. And, of course, you should always know the right resources for specific information about the particular types of catastrophes that are common to your neck of the woods. For example, during the recent Hawaii tsunami warnings, residents could receive up-to-the-minute reports from a variety of sources, including NOAA.
So, bookmark your local emergency services sites, or add them to an RSS feed or special start page. Create a Twitter list of the people you trust for breaking news about your area, or set up an old fashioned phone tree using e-mail over 3G as a backup in case the phone lines go down. No matter what you decide to do, make sure you have plans in place for staying in touch across multiple means of communication. You never know what will work and what won’t if a disaster really does strike.
Get Your Life Back
Once the immediate threat of a natural disaster has passed, you may find yourself facing an awful lot of cleanup, not to mention plenty of paperwork, as you try to recover your assets. This is why it’s important to catalog your stuff before that happens. This will make the process of an insurance claim much easier.
The first step in setting up a cataloging system is to get yourself organized. There are plenty of apps for that, and options for Blackberry users as well. Once you’re organized, you can start scanning all of your important possessions and papers into a web-based app, which will store them in the cloud. So, no matter what you lose in a disaster, you won’t lose your records too.
Use Home Inventory for iPhone or Star Home Inventory for Blackberry to track all of your stuff from the comfort of your mobile device. If you have a Mac, you can also use DeliciousMonster to scan all of your books, movies and more into your computer by their bar codes. Or, just hook up a standard barcode scanner directly to your laptop. Publish your stuff to the web to make sure your data is safe in case your desktop is destroyed. And, to really be on the safe side, create a Google Docs account, and back up your important insurance papers directly from your desktop.
The Last Word
Despite how far modern technology has come, we still haven’t figured out a perfect way to prevent natural disasters. Preparation is still the best defense. Proper planning means that if a disaster does strike, you’ll know what to do, where to go, and how to recover — which is some pretty powerful stuff indeed, even in the face of the forces of nature.
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