Hurricane prep: smartphone apps to help you stay safe, plus tips for conserving your battery

Amy Currin watches the weather news on her cell phone in Texas. Some apps can be particularly useful if your home electricity is out.
Amy Currin watches the weather news on her cell phone in Texas. Some apps can be particularly useful if your home electricity is out. Getty Images

When a hurricane (or ice storm or who knows what) strikes and everyone is scrambling — either on the go or without electricity at home — there are a few smartphone apps that can help you get the information you need to stay safe and help you stay in touch with loved ones.

Here are some useful apps for phones or tablets, plus a few tips for making the most of your precious battery life.

Red Cross Hurricane App: This free app gives you NOAA alerts and a way to connect with loved ones. It includes a flashlight (but so do most phones), an alarm (also on most phones) and a strobe light. Red Cross also offers first aid apps for people and for pets that could come in handy (as well as apps specifically for tornadoes, earthquakes, floods and wildfires). It works on Apple and Android devices. Check out all the options at redcross.org/get-help/how-to-prepare-for-emergencies/mobile-apps.

Zello: Push-to-talk apps basically turn your smartphone into a walkie-talkie so that you can communicate with other people using the app when mobile networks are overloaded. There are several such apps available now (Hey Tell, Two Way, Voxer, TIKL) but Zello is probably the most well known. The app was used a lot by rescuers during Hurricane Harvey to find people and animals in need. You create a Zello account and then find a channel to join — or create your own channel and invite friends — and chat. You push a button to talk, just like with a walkie-talkie. You will need wi-fi or cellular data connection to use it. There’s a Zello FAQ for new users and a guide for using the app during disasters — both worth checking out ahead of time. There’s also a great step-by-step How to Use Zello guide here. It works on Apple, Android, Windows Phones, Blackberry and PCs.

The Weather Channel: Another free app (and a great one to have year-round) giving you forecasts, alerts, radar and video. Works for Apple and Android products.

NOAA Radar US: This app gives real-time animated radar images and an interactive map with National Weather Service weather alerts and weather info for your exact location. And it’s free.

Local weather alerts: Your local TV stations should have apps with weather alerts that give warnings about severe weather in your area. These are particularly useful when storms spawn tornadoes. Download one or all of them right now.

ReadyNC: For North Carolina residents, this app from North Carolina Emergency Management, NC Department of Public Safety and NC Citizen Corps gives disaster updates, including current weather conditions, evacuation updates, traffic conditions, power outages (and how to report outages), open shelters (including ones that take pets!) and real-time info on stream and river flood gages near you.

Preserve your battery

All of these apps are no good if your phone battery dies. Here are a few things you can do to make your smartphone battery last a little longer. Many of these can be managed in your phone’s Settings area.

  • Close out any unnecessary apps. If they’re running in the background, they’re sucking valuable juice.
  • Turn off Bluetooth if you’re not using it.
  • Turn off 4G (select 3G instead).
  • Turn off wi-fi or enable Wi-Fi Assist on iPhones. This will eat up data, though, so pick your battle.
  • Dim your screen as much as you can stand.
  • Manually enable low power mode.

Back-up battery

Also, invest in a few portable backup power sources. You can get these almost anywhere now and at almost every price point. Check places like Target, Walmart, Best Buy and Amazon. For example, the Anker 20000mAh Portable Charger PowerCore 20100 ($50) says it can fully charge an iPhone 8 almost seven times. But you can also find decent battery banks for as little as $15 to $20 (when everyone’s scrambling for them at the last minute, though, they’ll be harder to find). If you have some of these backup power sources, keep them fully charged and be sure you have charging cables.