The Value of Smartphones in a Disaster

My Personal Experience of the Central Illinois Tornadoes

Mobile Devices, Pedagogy and Learning Comments (4)

We often say mobile learning is learning at the point of need, usually regarding encountering a type of obstacle or problem at the workplace. However, “the point of need” can also mean when severe weather threatens to destroy your neighborhood.

On Nov. 17, a dangerous weather system tore through Central Illinois – the location of Float’s headquarters – at an astonishing pace of 65 miles per hour, spawning 87 reported tornadoes. Two of them touched down in nearby communities and, sometimes, our hometowns. The EF-4 tornado that left a scar through Washington, Ill., with winds of up to 200 mph, barely avoided the homes of several of our colleagues.

Aerial view of the Washington, Ill., tornado courtesy of the Peoria Journal Star

Damage left by the tornado that hit Washington, Ill., courtesy of the Peoria Journal Star

That tornado, which made headlines around the world, damaged the roof of my grandparents’ house while shredding other homes in their cul de sac, before moving northeast to flatten two homes belonging to other family members, and leaving two other relatives’ homes badly beaten. Thankfully, no one in my family was injured because of the storm itself or the days of clean-up that have followed.

The tornado siren wailed as I hopped in my car. I’d ride out the storm at my parents’ house a few blocks away. As we stood in the basement, I tried checking my phone to no avail, so I went upstairs to see was going on; being put under a tornado warning in the Midwest is like the boy who cried wolf. Little did I know a half-mile-wide twister was shredding homes just eight minutes away.

I kept refreshing my phone to see if any of my Facebook friends felt as inconvenienced as me without power, but the app wouldn’t load. Only later did I realize that not only was the network overloaded with friends and family checking on the Washington tornado victims but that a cell tower had been knocked down just two miles away from me.

Finally, I was able to reach Facebook and heard the news. My cousin in Indianapolis posted on a status update of mine that her parents had pulled out of the driveway to head to church when they saw an emergency vehicle speed by them, going the opposite direction. When my aunt glanced at the police car in her side mirror, she noticed her mirror had gone dark.

“(Dad) and Mom had sped back to the house, just in time to see my brother climbing out of the basement through the rubble — wearing a pair of Dad’s shoes and socks he’d kept in the downstairs bathroom.”

And how did she know?

Her mobile phone.

“Dad made sure I heard everyone’s voice, passing his phone around to my brother, who gave me the short version of his survival story; and my mother, distraught over not knowing her neighbors’ fate during so much destruction.”

We heavily rely on our mobile devices – our phones, specifically in an emergency, the last point of need.

Here’s how you can use your smartphone when disaster strikes.

1. How to Use Your Phone to Prepare for Future Disasters

Usually, natural disasters occur with some warning ahead of time. Even if you don’t pay attention to local forecasts, you’ll know what types of weather events affect your region. Use that knowledge to think of what save when something hits.

First, make digital backups of your most essential documents – ID, insurance information, and other essentials. Further, take plenty of pictures – candids, selfies, whatever – inside your home. Insurance adjusters want to know exactly what was in your home so they can replace it. Looking through these pictures will help you identify, and list items were in particular rooms.

Next, store these digital backups on a cloud service such as Google Drive or Dropbox so you can access them anywhere you need to. Depending on where you keep external hard drives, they could be lost in the storm. Several items belonging to my family were swept more than 100 miles away to various Chicago suburbs, so physical media can’t be relied upon entirely.

Using an app like Evernote or another checklist app, track what you want to bring with you when you need to take cover. Proper identification is essential – driver’s license, state ID card, etc. – because when you’re able to get back into the disaster zone, you’ll probably need it to verify your residence as police try to prevent gawkers and looters from entering the area.

You also may want to be sure to retrieve a family heirloom. My aunt was wearing her late mom’s wedding ring the day the tornado hit, but you could get distracted trying to find these things while rescuing family members or neighbors, so note those things before a disaster. Note specifically where you have items in a basement to know whether it’s still safe (like in the event of a tornado) or whether it needs to get moved immediately (in the event of a flood).

Take advantage of other apps and services. Download offline versions of maps to your phone, so you don’t have to rely on Internet service or data coverage, which, as mentioned before, was spotty for some time immediately following the tornado. I’ll explain how this can help down below.

And as a final measure of preparation, download apps to your phone such as weather apps or any apps in the Red Cross suite. They came in handy in Washington, at least.

2. What To Do With Your Phone When You Know a Potential Disaster is Coming

The storm is coming, and you’ve taken an inventory of your valuable belongings, stored it somewhere you can access anywhere, and you’re ready to use the apps to your advantage. What’s next?

Make sure your phone is charged. You will use it — a lot. The power will probably go out, so you’ll want access to information following any disaster that ravages your area.

You’ll use the weather apps or Red Cross apps. Two people died, and a few dozen others sustained injuries in the Washington tornado, but a common refrain in media interviews since the tornadoes credits a National Weather Service push notification for saving so many lives.

You may also want to alert immediate family members of what’s coming near your area so they may help following the disaster. Given how fast this storm system was a moving – 65 mph – notifying anyone else may seem like a luxury. Make sure you are safe first.

3. What To Do With Your Phone During the Disaster Itself

Let’s be completely honest here – over one of you reading this probably thinks it’s refreshing to tap your camera, flip the setting to video, and record the storm as it’s happening. I’m not judging you. That’s a call you have to make at that moment. But, it’s not worth your life or a severe injury.

I’ve watched several videos from people who recorded the Washington tornado, whether it was from a distance or when it was right on top of them. In one harrowing video (WARNING: explicit language), you don’t see anything, but instead, you hear a father narrate the twister as his daughter cries in the background.

4. How Smartphones Can Help You Immediately Following The Disaster

As soon as possible, post a blanket message to friends and family on your Facebook wall that says you’re okay. Your family, friends, and some people you probably haven’t heard from for a while will want to know how you’re doing. By posting one message, you can save your battery by avoiding the urge to respond to individual texts until you find a power source.

Once you have assessed the status of your family members, you’d be wise to take pictures or video. Claims adjusters will ask about the condition of your home before visiting it. Most of us will (hopefully) never experience this in our lives, but if you do, you’ll probably want to show people the wreckage, whether it’s in a few days, weeks, or even months or years.


If, as in the case of the Washington tornado, the street signs have been wiped out, using your phone’s GPS or the stored maps you saved offline will help you navigate the streets if you’re new to the area, or you’re a volunteer trying to find your way. Maybe you’re in a state of shock and need to reorient yourself.

Not long after the tornado tore through Washington, a Facebook page emerged, racking up over 150,000 likes within a day. This use of social media was and continues to be a fountain of information for tornado victims and those looking to help.

The Red Cross set up a location near the affected areas, and its app will help you find volunteer positions. Long after the national media attention disappears, insulation and bedding stuck in trees or cornfields still flail in the wind, among other debris.

What we consider “mobile learning at the point of need” usually refers to the job site. However, as evidenced by thousands in the wake of a tornado, the point of need can be just before, during or after a disaster.

When the World Trade Center towers were hit on 9/11, the only communications systems that continued to work from inside the towers to the outside world was the BlackBerry messaging and phone service.

You never know when disaster will strike. When it does, your mobile phone can be a lifeline in so many ways.

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Adam Bockler is the communications manager for Float, responsible for all of Float's marketing initiatives. In addition, Adam is a certified DDP Yoga Level 1 instructor, a certified personal trainer, a martial arts instructor, and a graduate of the Black and Brave Wrestling Academy.

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On December 3, 2013
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4 Responses to The Value of Smartphones in a Disaster

  1. David Kelly says:

    Great post Adam. I relied heavily on my phone in the days after Hurricane Sandy.

    I’d add on recommendation: Get a mobile power pack for your phone. As you said, you’ll use your phone constantly after a disaster, and you don’t want to be without power. I have a nice-sized mobile charger, so I was able to keep my devices (and many neighbors’) with charge all day regardless of how much we used them.

    These chargers are pretty affordable nowadays. They’re a great convenience for daily use, and an invaluable resource in times of disaster.

    • Adam Bockler says:

      Thanks, David. This is definitely not an exhaustive piece, as I’ve already seen some Facebook comments with other tips. Just my own personal experience and some things that I’d do differently to be prepared for a future event like this.

  2. Washington resident says:

    Having gone through this disaster thankfully with very little damage, I echo everything said. Facebook was my only source of information for the first 30 hours and my main source even longer. I will never consider it only a luxury item again. I don’t have a smartphone and don’t usually have a data plan on my tablet but had forgotten to cancel the tablet plan and was so thankful. Please also memorize some family phone numbers. These days we rely on our phone contact list but many came out of the rubble without their phones.

    • Adam Bockler says:

      Memorizing family phone numbers should definitely be something else to keep in mind, especially immediately family. I especially don’t even know my own close friends’ numbers.

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