Hurricane Irma: How to prepare for limited cell service and reach people during the storm

Stay connected.
Stay connected.
Image: AP Photo/LM Otero
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Communication is crucial during disaster situations, and hurricanes can post unique challenges when cell towers are damaged or destroyed by large storms. When that infrastructure goes down, it means that traditional phone calls might not get through.

Here’s a quick guide on your best bets for staying connected.

Call or text through Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, or Skype

During natural disasters, cell towers that aren’t destroyed are typically overburdened by emergency response services. For calling friends and family, FEMA and the FCC suggest finding Wi-Fi and use digital messaging services like iMessage, Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Skype, or even Snapchat for more reliable communication.

To make this easier, Comcast has opened more than 137,000 hotspots for Floridians to use for free, so people can stay connected.

It takes even less data to send text messages through these services, so if speaking over the phone isn’t critical, a copy & pasted message to friends sharing that you’re safe could be best.

Text as a backup, but call 911

If you can’t connect to the internet, texts are still more likely to get through than phone calls. Keep in mind that you can’t text 911. You’ll have to rely on your regular phone app to call for help.

Use social media to reach friends and family all at once

While apps like Facebook typically use a lot of your phone’s power, the FCC and FEMA suggest it could be more efficient to post a status update on social versus messaging individual friends and family that you’re safe.

The analog version of this is setting a primary contact point outside of the storm, so you can communicate with just one person who can call for help or keep others apprised on your behalf.

Keep it short

Everyone around you will be having the same idea; Phone and internet networks are going to be heavily taxed. Keep messages and phone calls short to help keep network traffic down and avoid being cut off before relaying important information.