A Public Service Announcement: Emergency Communications

Being unable to find out if my mother was dead or alive in Puerto Rico for five days post-Maria was terrifying, especially because she had a broken leg and was housebound. I learned a lot from this horrendous experience, mostly that you need to have a plan in place BEFORE a disaster. And that plan has to be more than “Call me as soon as you can.”

Here are my hurricane-inspired guidelines for communication in emergency situations.

1. Phone. The most frustrating aspect of the Hurricane Maria emergency was the complete lack of working phones anywhere – not just on the island, but on widely shared lists of governmental aid agencies like FEMA. NONE of those numbers worked, even when their area codes were in places not affected by the hurricane. Here’s a newsflash: you will not be able to rely on the government for communication in case of an emergency. It will be private citizens and NGOs that make things happen.

That said, even though phone service may be out for days, phones are still your first line of defense. Create a network of friends and family in different states and even countries. If the person in the disaster zone can get through to even one, he or she can spread the word to the rest of the network. Create your own plan, with people you know and trust, and watch out for each other.

Note that sometimes texting works even when regular phone service doesn’t. Keep calling and texting. At some point, phones will come back online. Don't fill up voicemail in case others need to leave messages.  

Oh, and keep your phone charged! Have at least one portable charger like this one and keep it/them charged too.

2. The Red Cross. If you are in an emergency, register with the Red Cross ASAP, and tell your network to check the Red Cross registry for you. The Red Cross was the ONLY functioning entity I came across in the 5 days I desperately sought information. Their website worked smoothly (my mother was not registered on it) and a real person answered the phone when I called to provide my info so they could contact me when/if she did. Kudos to the Red Cross.

List yourself as safe here.
Find out if someone is safe here.

You can also call the Red Cross about a missing person. The number is (800) 733-2767. I found it staffed by caring and competent people at a time I had almost abandoned hope that such a thing existed anymore.

And, in the belt-and-suspenders category, you can download the Red Cross Emergency App and use the "I'm Safe" button to post a message to your social media accounts. Text "GETEMERGENCY" to 90999. Like, right now.

3. Social media. The only info I received specific to my mother’s neighborhood (Dorado) was on social media. Anything outside San Juan or near a shaky dam was not mentioned by the mainstream media. But on social media, I found people who lived in or had family in Dorado, who informed me that the area was not badly hit. This eased my mind somewhat (except late at night when the visions returned of my mom and her dogs floating up to the ceiling of her flooded house).

Start tweeting and posting on Facebook with specifics about who and what you’re looking for. After Maria, hyper-local Facebook groups sprang up instantly, thanks to tech-savvy angels who know how valuable these resources are. Through the Dorado subgroup and Facebook Messenger, I met a woman in Texas whose parents live near my mother. She arranged to send someone by my mother’s house to check on her! (Shoutout to American Airlines employees!)

I posted on my own Facebook page and received messages of support as well as unexpected information, including some from a friend whose aunt lives near San Juan. The kind thoughts and prayers sustained me. Shoutout to my friends!

Tweet to news sources and celebrities affiliated with the disaster, whether through location, fundraising activities, affected family members, etc. In the case of Puerto Rico, Jennifer Lopez, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ricky Martin were all actively tweeting. A tweet I sent “@” Lin-Manuel was seen by someone who follows him – and that person got me info. The CNN reporter on the ground retweeted a message I sent him and someone contacted me with an update on the area. The power of social media is REAL.

My mother is not on Facebook, but those who are can check in via the Facebook Safety Check next time. (God, please don’t let there be a “next time”!) When enough people on FB post about a disaster, FB activates Safety Check and people in the area get prompted to check in.

Google may have a similar service, but my mother has Google-induced paranoia and refuses to use it – Bing all the way for her!

4. Apps. Internet service may be out in a disaster-affected zone, but there are many methods of communicating. Have your network download a couple of them, set up accounts, practice communicating, pick favorites and be ready. I recommend:

·       WhatsApp Messenger and WhatsApp Calling (1 billion users, internet-enabled messaging and calls)
·       Zello (50 million users, long-distance walkie-talkie functionality with no internet required)
·       Skype (500 million users, IM, voice and video calls)
·       Firechat (1 million users, messaging without signal or data)
·       Family Locator GPS Tracker (10 million users)

5. Ham radio. Yes, it lives! I had not heard that term in decades, but a friend on Facebook informed me ham radio worked in PR post-Maria. However, you must be a licensed user, and operating a ham radio takes some knowledge. Best for you and those in your network to find local ham radio operators while the sun is still shining and the ground is not moving, bake them cookies and enlist their future aid.

More info here

6. Satellite phones. These are expensive and don’t always work. However, if you have one, keep it at the ready!

A word about the elderly. My mother is in her 80s. She shuts off her computer at 5pm every day so it can’t spy on her. She has a flip phone which she only uses to call “long distance” cheaply. Until Hurricane Irma was headed her way, she had not been aware that her phone could receive texts – and she still refused to learn how to send them. Years ago, I convinced her to try Skype, but when she answered my call I saw her naked and she immediately uninstalled it. (Too late – I can never un-see my impending future body!)

Her current phone can’t download the apps mentioned here and she resists learning even lifesaving technologies. So what do I do? I communicate with her neighbor, Rose. Rose’s cell service came back 5 days after Maria; my mother’s cheapo service is still out. I will be discussing apps with Rose. I can't bake her cookies, but she will know how much I appreciate her help. 

So if you haven't gotten to know your neighbors already, what are you waiting for? Share their information with your friends and family, and have them share yours with their own. Who knows? Some may even be ham radio operators. 

My mom is fine. Me? I will be drinking heavily for a few more days.

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