Preparation Key to Effectively Using Technology During Large Storms

The wake of Hurricane Harvey and incoming threat of Hurricane Irma highlight the importance of preparedness, as well as where technology can be used to help in the aftermath.

by Nancy Dahlberg, Miami Herald / September 6, 2017

(TNS) -- What can you expect after a hurricane? Mobile units, drones and other smart technology will help pinpoint problems and speed recovery, and there are now more avenues to get information out quickly.

Q: If I lose power, will it be restored faster than after previous hurricanes?

A. Many South Florida survivors of Hurricanes Andrew and Wilma remember being without power (and AC!) for weeks or even longer. While more local homes and businesses do now have portable generators, those who don’t may have a shorter wait than 25 years ago, thanks to $3 billion in FPL system improvements.

FPL spokesman Bill Orlove said the company has installed nearly 66,000 smart devices on the grid that help line workers and restorations specialists quickly pinpoint issues. FPL also can fly drones to unsafe or inaccessible areas, again helping crews survey an area quickly. And as crews restore power, technology communicates with every meter in that area, so crews can verify instantly that the lights are back on.

For those who lost power last year during Hurricane Matthew, 99 percent were back online within two days.

Q. Will my smartphone have service?

A. Cellphone carriers now have mobile communications units that can quickly restore service to damaged areas. For example, AT&T plans to deploy more than 700 pieces of equipment, including its Cell on Wheels (COWs), Cell on Light Trucks (COLTs), trailers and generators as needed to maintain its network — about double what was available last year, said spokeswoman Kelly Starling.

Still, during an emergency situation, text messages may go through more quickly than voice calls because they require fewer network resources. Tip: Avoid unnecessary calls and be sure to program all of your emergency contact information — including family members, police, fire station and hospital — into your mobile phone. Power up all your devices before a storm and have several battery-operated chargers at the ready.

Keep your devices in sealed plastic bags, advises Sprint. “We saw a lot of people who fortunately made it through the flood waters of Harvey, but their phones didn’t,” spokesperson Roni Singleton said.

Q. How can I get and send critical information?

A. For hurricane preparation and surviving the aftermath, there’s a whole new, real-time world of information, with 24/7 media websites including MiamiHerald.com; weather and Federal Emergency Management Agency apps; email from municipalities; and social media to spread the word.

MiamiHerald.com and other media outlets will be updated around the clock; check MiamiHerald.com/storm for the latest. Here is everything you need to know about surviving the storm in one place.

Facebook and other social networks will likely act as massive information exchanges for practicalities such as where to get water, plus how to rally help in the aftermath. Tip: Always check the source of the information, advises Nancy Richmond, who teaches social media at Florida International University.

While families, companies and organizations are shoring up their properties, they also need a crisis plan for how they are going to communicate. For big organizations, governments and large entities like universities, Richmond suggests making sure that official channels connect with one other so the facts get out and are shared. These channels can also help discredit fake or untrue news quickly, Richmond said.

Facebook instituted safety check-ins in 2014 so people can let their family and friends know that they are safe. Use the tool, she advised.

Q. How will my cable TV service be affected?

A. Comcast spokeswoman Mindy Kramer said content is now imported and distributed to customers over a fiber backbone network. That’s more reliable than in the past, when satellite uplinks and downlinks were key. (Those go down if power goes down.)

Also, she said, Comcast has constructed a redundant system located outside the region so it would not be impacted by weather events in Florida. (Of course, you still have to have power to turn on the TV.)

“And lastly, our X1 entertainment platform is completely cloud-based. So even if a local site goes down, things like Video on Demand, DVR recordings, your channel guide, are all stored in the cloud, again, allowing video services to be restored much quicker than had been possible before,” she said.

Q. What should be in my tech hurricane kit?

A. Beyond water, nonperishable food, flashlights and batteries, don’t forget battery-run chargers for your devices. Keep emergency contact numbers close at hand. Take before and after pictures of your property and damage to send to your insurance company.

“Old-school technology should be a critical part of everybody’s hurricane kit, too,” said meteorologist Bryan Norcross in an earlier interview. “One or more transistor radios with lots of batteries, and, if possible, a POTS system [analog landline] are the most important. Beyond that, one or more large portable battery systems that can be charged by the car, solar or by taking it to a location where it can be plugged into AC will go a long way toward keeping cellphones charged, even if it’s just for texting.”

This guide will be updated as needed.

©2017 Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.