June 1 marks the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season, but nature does not keep to a timetable when it comes to severe weather. Already this year, various parts of the country have encountered devastating floods, wildfires and one of the worst series of tornados on record. In the middle of such events, we often discover how much we have come to depend on technology that we take for granted: electricity, running water, access to broadcast information and reliable telecommunications.
In an emergency, information can be one of your most valuable commodities. It can literally be a matter of life and death to know the latest details about storm or wildfire paths. But when the power goes out, you may lose access to critical information. You'll be in the dark, both literally and figuratively.
Let There Be Light
The first step is to make sure that you have a way to shed some light on the subject. Make sure you have ready access to a good flashlight. Ideally, you should have one for each member of the household. LED flashlights will produce light much longer on a set of batteries than the traditional incandescent. Luckily, there are deals on these all the time, and you can stock up for just a few dollars per item. Be sure to keep some fresh batteries along with the flashlights so that you'll be sure to have plenty of light. Even better, get a hand-powered version, like this hand-crank LED flashlight from Home Depot, which you can pick up for $16. There are several models like this that let you crank or shake them to recharge, so you don't need to worry about batteries.
As for solving the information blackout, you'll need a battery-powered device. It used to be that a transistor radio was a standard fixture in most households, but that doesn't seem to be the case anymore. You can pick one up online, or you can turn the opportunity into a science experiment and build your own for roughly the same cost.
If your car is available, you can listen to the car radio for news and weather updates, and the power drain will be fairly small, so you should be able to listen for a long time and still have enough battery power to start the car. And since many smart phones and portable media players also have FM radio receivers or apps, you have that convenient radio source too. Note: In general, you will need to use headphones to listen to a smart phone radio, as the devices often rely on the headphone cable as the FM antenna.
A picture is worth a thousand words, however, so consider adding a battery-powered television to your emergency kit. These were hard to come by initially after the U.S. changed from analog to digital broadcasts, but now you'll find an increasing number of models. Some companies, such as RCA, offer portable televisions that not only pick up the traditional local television channels, but also the new Mobile Digital Television (Mobile DTV) signals that some broadcasters have started to offer. You can pick one up with a 7" LCD screen and a built-in rechargeable battery at Walmart for just $60. If you are in a fringe reception area, you may need to get a model that lets you attach an external antenna, for improved signals.
Still a Land Line Lover?
Many people have made the switch to cell phones and ditched their land lines. But as we found out during the recent tornado disaster that affected Huntsville, Ala., where the dealnews home office is, cell phones can be spotty after a natural disaster. When power lines go down, they will likely take your cable and telephone lines with them. Cell phone towers have emergency backup power, but it is possible that their connections to the rest of the world can also be damaged. For this reason, it's good to have a landline available as well as a cell phone.
If you lose both, you'll need to go super high-tech or cumbersome old fashioned, which will be more expensive or more difficult, respectively, than most families are willing to deal with for an emergency kit. For example, a refurb satellite phone will run you over $500, and you'll need a service plan that will run you at least $30 a month. A beginner's ham radio kit will only cost you about $45, but you'll need to learn how to use it.
Power to the People
All these devices will need electricity to run. One way to make sure that you can keep them going is to have plenty of replacement batteries on hand. That's fine for things like flashlights, but cell phones and portable media players use proprietary rechargeable batteries. So you'll need a reliable way to recharge them.
One handy approach is to use a solar-powered solution like the Solio Classic Universal Hybrid Charger from Radio Shack, which can draw power from the sun even on a cloudy day. You can also find mechanical chargers for under $20 that you can crank yourself.
Another easy approach is to get a car "hot shot" jumper battery, like this Wagan 400-Watt Power Jumpstarter from Amazon for $100. These hold a lot of stored power, and often have 12-volt accessory sockets so that you can use your car charger cables for your cell phones and other devices. One of these batteries will be able to recharge a cell phone many times.
If you live in an area where extended power outages are common, you may want to invest in a small gasoline-powered generator like this one from Sears, which you can pick up at a local department store or hardware store for under $200. These can produce enough power to keep your oil heat working or keep your freezer running so that your food won't spoil. You'll need to be careful about not using too many electrical devices at once, but a small generator can keep your essential systems running until the power can be restored.