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Disaster lurks: Stay connected when Irma hits

When a major storm hits, having the right tech gear can help you stay in touch with the world -- and survive.

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Satellite imagery of Hurricane Irma approaching Florida, as of Friday morning.

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If you lose power during a storm or an earthquake, you may be able to get by for three hours, but do you have what it takes to stay connected if the lights go out for three days -- or longer?

Floridians are scrambling to prepare for the worst as Irma -- one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded -- barrels through the Caribbean, causing widespread destruction. Forecasts show the fierce Category 5 storm slamming into Florida by the weekend.

Houston is still hurting from the devastation left by Hurricane Harvey two weeks ago. And it's not over yet -- hurricanes Jose and Katia lurk nearby, with Jose in the mid-Atlantic and Katia in the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane season keeps costal communities on edge until the end of November. 

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Mark Mann

In today's smartphone-dependent world, those in the path of a storm can't count on apps to be a sole source for all news and communication with the outside. A natural disaster might leave you stranded without power days on end in a dark, cold home with nothing but a dead phone battery.

I grew up in South Florida, where planning to go for a week without power is part of the norm for summer hurricane season. In 1992, my family huddled around the radio and battery-powered TV for information after Hurricane Andrew leveled entire neighborhoods nearby. And that didn't change after I moved to New York; many of my friends went without power for days after 2012's Hurricane Sandy.

There's no app for this

Sure, stocking up on enough water and canned food to last a week is important, but it's just as vital to think how you'll power the essential tech, including your phone, lights at night, and even a small energy-efficient radio or LED TV for news (that is, as long as you have an antenna to pick up over-the-air broadcast signals). In an emergency, you can't rely on your phone for news.

For some first-hand perspective, I went to survivalists, including Lt. Col. Scott Mann, a retired Green Beret who served in conflict zones and now trains corporate execs on how to tough it out in the wild. Mann stresses the importance of owning a variety of backup power sources.

Before turning to a battery, explains Mann, you'll need to change your phone habits. No playing games and no scrolling through Facebook (except for getting news on the safety of loved ones, of course). Your phone is now a survival tool. Turn it off to conserve power unless you need to reach someone.

Keep in mind that even if you have power, checking in with Mom may be impossible, at least for a while. Cell towers, if operating, aren't designed to handle everyone in a given area trying to use their phone at once. Weather Channel hurricane expert Bryan Norcross has seen this firsthand during monster storms. During Hurricane Andrew, he was the voice my family counted on through his broadcasts over the radio. Now, he shares his storm warnings with the world through Facebook posts. He sees the potential complications with our phone dependance.

"It's very scary that there's a significant part of the populous that doesn't have a way to get information if cell phones don't work," Norcross says. "That's the biggest public safety problem we have."

He advises that if there's network congestion, send a text message instead of calling. Not only does it take up fewer network resources, but even if the text gets stuck in a network traffic jam it should eventually get through.

Juice up

An outage can last a day or a week, so you'll need a few options for backup battery packs. They come in many sizes and capacities, depending on how much you're willing to spend. Battery smartphone cases -- like those made by Mophie -- are good for travel, but you also can buy larger battery packs that could power even your TV in short intervals. These giant portable packs, such as the Duracell Powerpack Pro and Black & Decker Power Station, are also sold to jump-start car batteries.

Once you buy them, though, don't let batteries sit in your closet for a year and expect them to work when disaster strikes. Batteries degrade over time, and leaving one idle is a sure way to kill it. Robert Fares at the University of Texas Energy Institute says there's no magic rule to keep lithium ion batteries alive longer, since different models are made up of different chemical mixes. But as a general rule of thumb, follow the manufacturer's guidance, keep it charged up and use it every so often, and store it in a cool room to preserve it longer.

Don't forget: The car can give your gadgets an emergency charge, too. And be sure to keep enough gas in the tank to drive away if you need to evacuate quickly.

goalzero-solarcharger

Goal Zero makes a variety of solar chargers.

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Solar support

Camping stores are a great resource for good portable solar battery chargers. But think of solar chargers as the backup to your backup. It can take a long time to harness enough energy just for one phone -- sometimes at least five hours of direct sunlight.

When buying a solar charger, know that the larger the panel, the more successful the charge.  And since not all solar chargers will store the energy for extended periods, you should transfer collected juice to another battery pack. Plan to spend around $50 or $100 to get a decent one -- the better models are made by Goal Zero and RAVPower -- and always look for products with a manufacturer's warranty.

Give it some gas

If you're planning on buying a gas-powered generator, you'll want a UPS pack, which is short for Uninterrupted Power Supply.  Gas-powered generators can put out "dirty" power, meaning the voltage fluctuates and can damage electronics. Using a UPS to filter the power can prevent your tech from frying, Norcross says.

Some generator models, like the Honda EU2000 series, come with a built-in inverter to pump out more stable power for your computers. George Hill, an ex-soldier and expert survivalist who has been through his share of storms, says Honda's models are small enough to store under a bed and can run about 8 hours on 1 gallon of gas. At around $1,000, it's a hefty investment, but it could make a big difference when power is out for the long haul. And although this may seem obvious, never run a gas-powered generator indoors, no matter how desperate you are for power. The carbon monoxide will kill you.

Food, water and shelter are all important parts of the storm survival plan. But here's a checklist of the gear you'll need to stay powered during an extended outage:

  • Battery-powered lantern and headlamps (and plenty of extra batteries).
  • Need to evacuate and you won't have a car? Make sure you have a handheld GPS that runs off AA batteries.
  • Hikers use a Spot personal-tracking GPS to let loved ones know their place on a map, and can get help with the press of a button. This is also handy for when you can't use a phone to let people know if you need emergency assistance, or to send a blast message to family that you are OK.
  • Get a heavy-duty, extra-long extension cord (200+ feet). If the neighbor has power before you, they may lend you an outlet. 
  • Don't just rely on wimpy phone backup batteries. Get a heavy-duty portable power pack, which costs around $200 to $300. They can even jump-start a car.
  • A gas-powered generator and UPS to filter the power are handy for keeping you sane in the long-haul. Just learn how to use it before disaster strikes -- and don't use it indoors.
  • Solar power can be a savior when all other batteries are depleted and you can't leave your home. Don't just go for the cheapest thing on Amazon. The larger the panel to soak up rays, the better. Get one with a warranty to ensure quality.
  • Don't count on hand-cranking. Get a portable battery-powered radio to stay on top of news.
  • Can you watch TV news without cable? If you live in a metro area, you should be able to pick up broadcast signals with a digital TV antenna. Use it with a low-energy LCD TV so you don't lose all your battery juice at once.

A version of this story appeared in the summer 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.

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