the past 20 years have seen an increase in the amount of climate-related disasters and the destruction they cause. It’s become increasingly crucial to prepare for natural disasters, including ones you don’t expect. For example, in February 2021, Texas experienced its worst winter storm in decades, resulting in power outages across the state. A growing number of apps on the market give detailed instructions on how to prepare for natural disasters in the months beforehand, and what to do during an emergency.
As the person responsible for my family’s emergency planning since fourth grade, I’ve been using Red Cross checklists for years, learned to pack solid emergency kits, and recently included apps in my preparation. To get an expert opinion about the best (and worst) app features out there, I spoke to two experts, Caela O’Connell, assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of Anthology, and Mitch Stripling, an emergency preparedness expert and former assistant commissioner of Agency Preparedness and Response for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Here’s what I learned, and the apps the experts recommend.
FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) is known to help Americans during natural disasters, but did you know they also have an app to help prepare before, during, and after an event? Information about over 20 emergencies, from avalanches to winter weather, is available. O’Connell advises you to take screenshots of these tips to conserve phone battery in a real emergency.
The app also links to key numbers like 911 and FEMA, so whether you’re preparing just in case or are in danger, you’re able to get help all one in one place. In the aftermath of a flood, instructions about starting your flood insurance claim are also available, keeping you safe and more financially viable.
Launched by former Headspace executive Dan Kessler last October, Harbor works to gamify the emergency preparedness process by turning questions about hazards from earthquakes to wildfires into trivia questions about what to do. Unlike the apps on the list, Harbor requires you to make an account—which O’Connell say would be a “disaster” in itself if you were trying to get assistance immediately. “But it's an interesting entry point for education,” O’Connell says, with most of the app's usefulness in learning beforehand.
Users are rewarded after completing a task with puns, peppy quotes, and the possibility of earning a badge. Essential items that users mark they don’t have will be displayed under the Household app with an automatically curated to-do list. Harbor contains a lot of basic questions, like whether you should drink water or a cafe latte for survival, but it does link to official data and advice, such as the Red Cross’s Hurricane app.
Freemium for iOS
First Aid: American Red Cross
While the First Aid app doesn’t specifically prepare you for natural disasters, it does contain information about what to do for an injury that could result from one, O’Connell notes. Step-by-step instructions are provided for over 20 kinds of injuries, with additional videos and the option to call 911 directly from the app available.
In the event of a real emergency, turning on Location Services will enable the app to find your nearest hospitals. And because the First Aid app is made by the Red Cross, links to products like a premade First Aid Kit are featured, perfect for those short on time.
Hurricane: American Red Cross
Hurricane is also part of the family of Red Cross apps. It allows you to monitor specific zip codes for hurricane, tornado, flood, and other warnings. Family members can be added as well, allowing you to keep an eye on loved ones living far away. However, when I tested the app, it said that the nearest shelter was in Wisconsin, but upon clicking the pin, a Texas location was shown instead.
If you’re looking to give back but don’t know where to start, the Hurricane app directs you to Red Cross links to volunteer both time and blood. O’Connell says sometimes people who have experienced a natural disaster are fine but know others in the community who have suffered worse, and they want to assist, so these links give great ideas of where to begin.
The MyShake app is great if you want to learn more about the science of earthquakes, as it provides information from recent ones around the world. And if you're in one yourself, it may provide some data not available elsewhere. “When a seismic event happens, the app will use the phones of everybody who has it to try to measure the distance and prevalence of the impact of the quake, which is really interesting,” O’Connell explains. “By using everyone's sensors, it captures data that seismologists normally never have access to.”
Under the Safety tab, graphics depict people doing various activities to prepare, survive, and recover from an earthquake. O’Connell says the details in them are especially useful for children or those with limited ability in English to still know what to do.
Zello is a walkie-talkie right on your phone. Users can send short audio messages to one another. In 2019, Zello helped Venezuelans communicate during a political and economic upheaval. Two options are available, one for personal use in an emergency and another for work. Stripling likes the Zello app for two reasons: Emergency responders can connect cheaply and quickly, and community groups can also connect easily.
Like any app, Zello has its downsides. “It's reliant on the internet,” Stripling said. If one user’s broadband isn’t working, the internet is down for everybody else too. Earlier this year, Zello was used by militia groups in the Capitol insurrection, but the company was able to shut the accounts down. “It does show that it's easy to pick up and use for everybody, whether you're a good or a bad actor,” Stripling said.
EPA Smoke Sense
The EPA Smoke Sense app is actually a citizen science project, meaning that data from your phone and other users’ will be used by scientists to understand the effects of smoke on health. Tips for protecting yourself in a smoke event are also provided. However, Stripling notes that it’s difficult for apps based on Air Quality Index (AQI) to have the most updated information, as wildfire plumes are constantly shifting around. “I think the biggest feature that we want for wildfire protection is accurate smoke modeling and your connection to evacuation,” he added.
Stripling says that the EPA Smoke Sense app has the right advice and can be used with other apps, such as the Plume Labs app, which has live updates of air quality in your city.
Like all apps, the ones listed in this article aren’t one-size-fits-all. To find the best emergency preparedness apps, play around and see which features are most helpful for you. The most important part is the first step.
“The more we could find apps that could help change people’s minds and help them get into preparedness, that would hopefully be the next place the industry will go,” Stripling said.